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The Silent Tsunami: Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health issues impact productivity and profitability

Mental health issues are a silent tsunami in the workplace, one that could engulf organizations in myriad of productivity and profitability problems as well as legal liabilities unless mental health is addressed as seriously as are marketing, compensation and strategic plans. This article will address this critical issue as it exists in both the U.S. and Canada.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Melissa Korn contends that “it’s becoming problematic for companies as an increasing number of adults seek treatment for psychiatric disorders. According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, more than one in four American adults has a diagnosable mental health disorder, and one in seventeen has a serious disorder such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but chances are co-workers or managers don’t know who they are, says Korn.

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According to a U.S.A. Today report, based on research by Harvard University Medical School, untreated mental illness costs the U.S. a minimum of $105 billion in lost productivity each year. Most organizations’ health coverage plans show that physical ailments are covered, while mental health problems lag far behind. Serious mental illnesses costs society almost $200 billion in lost earnings per year according to the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Ronald Kessler, a Harvard University professor of health care policy and lead author of a study of the National Institute of Mental Health, cites data that shows 60% of Americans with a mental disorder get no treatment.

Stew Freedman, writing in the Harvard Business Review, argues that business leaders have a moral and practical imperative to address the issue of mental health in their workplaces: “You can enable them [employees] to feel freer to ask for the help they need in supporting their families by changing how you think, how you talk and how you act. In turn they are bound to repay you with extraordinary effort and commitment to your goals and to your company.”

Cornell University professor Phyllis Gabriel states “the burden of mental disorders on health and productivity throughout the world has long been profoundly underestimated…mental health problems strongly influence employee performance, rates of illness, absenteeism, accidents and staff turnover.”

The American Disabilities Act requires organizations to make “reasonable accommodation” for employees with disabilities, which could include flex hours, therapy or job reassignment.  Many American companies such as Prudential Financial, Deloitte and DuPont are providing employee assistance programs training for managers to address employee mental health problems. But they are not the norm.

According to a 2009 Ipsos Reed survey, one in five Canadians feel their working environment is not psychologically safe. According to a 2008 study by Mercer, mental illness is estimated to result in 35 million workdays lost each year. The Conference Board of Canada’s study, “Building Healthy Workplaces,” estimates that 44% of Canadians say they’ve coped with a mental health problem such as extreme stress, substance abuse, schizophrenia, depression, burnout and addictions. The report went on to state that almost 50% of managers had no training in managing workers with mental health issues.

In another Canadian study, 82% of those responding organizations ranked mental healthy conditions as their top three causes of short-term disability and 72% for long-term disability. Overall, it was estimated that up to $51 billion annually in Canada could be saved if mental health problems could be prevented. A Wilson Banwell study in 2008 stated “research strongly supports the need for employers to make workplace mental health a high priority business issue. It is not simply the right thing to do, it makes a company more competitive and profitable.”

Martin Shain, in a recent report for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, titled, “The Road to Psychological Safety: Legal, Scientific and Social Foundations for a national Standard for Psychological Safety,” argues that “normal” resilient people can be brought to the brink of mental distress and sometimes pushed over the edge by conditions at work. Mental ill-health, Shain argues, can result in psychologically unsafe workplaces, possibly in the form of debilitating anxiety, depression, and burnout or even cardiovascular disease, higher consumption of alcohol and susceptibility to infectious diseases. Mental health problems can also happened when job demands and requirements exceed worker skill levels, and when employees don’t have control over the means, manner and methods of their work.

Another report, “Stress at Work,” by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, outlines the growing number of case law precedents, legislative changes and tribunal deliberations that support a trend toward envisioning the duty to provide a psychologically safe workplace as an implicit term in an employment contract. Shain’s 2010 update report states, “a political legal storm is brewing in the area of mental health protection at work. This storm brings with it a rising tide of liability for employers.” He points out those financial rewards for damages against employers have increased by as much as 700% in the past 5 years.

“Stress at Work” makes it clear that common workplace mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and burnout can be aggravated by management actions such and chronic and consistent:

  • Imposition of unreasonable demands;
  • Withholding of information;
  • Refusal to allow employee discretion over methods of work;
  • Failure to acknowledge or credit employee contributions
  • Failure to recognize the legitimate rights of employees.

There is a disconnect between traditional management practices and our knowledge of the psychology of human performance and neuroscience. Awareness of the dynamics of human psychology and brain science research in relation to the workplace has evolved at a glacial place while our advances in marketing, sales, systems and technology has moved at light speed.

The myopic views often reflected in leadership training and business training programs, which focus primarily on things such as problem-solving, analysis, strategy, goal-setting, accountability and measurement. Yet it is clear that both leaders and their employees alike rarely get into trouble because of skill deficiencies. They get into trouble because of behavioral, psychological or emotional problems.

One difficulty that employees or potential hires face who are suffering from mental health issues is declaring their condition openly. Many recruiters will tell you, although not always on the record, that an admission of mental health issues raises “red flags,” and can be a factor in employer decision-making.

There is some light in the tunnel, at least in Canada. The Mental Health Commission of Canada has launched a collaborative project with the standards division of the Canadian Standards Association to create a voluntary national standard for mentally healthy workplaces, the first country in the world to develop such a standard.

 So too, are there signs the business community is taking notice of this important issue. Being the most significant professional organization representing the business community in Vancouver, the Vancouver Board of Trade has taken a strong position by initiating a significant study and report, “Psychologically Healthy Workplaces: Improving Bottom Line Results and Employee Psychologically Well-Being,” Not only did the Board examine the research of experts in the field, but it also interacted with members of the Vancouver general community in a public forum on mental health. Among a number of important conclusions, the report stated:

  • Maintaining a psychologically healthy workplace is cost effective through higher employee commitment and motivation, reduced absenteeism and reduced health care costs;
  • Spending on services which directly address mental health has increased 52% in the province of B.C. over the past ten years;
  • For an average company of 500 employees, untreated depression alone costs $1.4 million in lost work days and lost productivity per annum, and this does not include the costs related to bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders;
  • Protecting psychological well-being is a basic and key element of being a responsible employer;
  • Failure to provide a psychologically safe workplace can lead employees to engage lawyers in pursuit of court settlements.

There are encouraging signs that the B.C. provincial government will be undertaking initiatives that emphasize the importance of mental health as a fundamental part of the public health program. This includes new requirements under WorkSafe BC for ongoing stress to be considered a condition for claims under workers' compensation.

The time has long past where employers and employee organizations alike recognize the importance of considering mental health as not being separate from issues of physical health in the workplace in terms of the conditions of work, appropriate training of managers, and the provision of mental health coverage in health benefits. Failure to do so will not only be an avoidance of a moral imperative, but ignoring the practical impact on productivity and profitability of organizations. 

http://raywilliams.ca;  @raybwilliams

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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