Understanding Mental Health Problems in the Workplace

Studies indicate that a significant portion of the workforce struggles with mental health concerns; pre-COVID research showed the number eclipsed 20 percent, and it’s undoubtedly grown as the pandemic has increased rates of anxiety, stress, and depression.

Such high figures may come as a surprise to many. The reason for this is simple: There remains a lot of stigma surrounding mental health issues, particularly in the workplace. As such, many employees choose to suffer in silence rather than reveal their diagnoses.

This stigma presents a significant problem for workers, who may refuse to seek treatment because they fear that doing so could imperil their employment status. It presents a problem for mental healthcare providers, too, who are often faced with the uncomfortable scenario of counseling patients on how to address their problems in the workplace without breaking their secrecy.

The bottom line is that many mental health concerns are unrecognized, undiagnosed, and untreated. By raising awareness and increasing understanding, however, employees and employers alike can begin to remove stigma and create workplaces that are safe and welcoming.

Common Mental Health Problems

A good place to begin is with a simple review of common mental health problems, and the impact they can have in the workplace.

Depression

Research suggests that close to seven percent of U.S. adults suffer from depression. The question is, what does depression look like in the workplace? Though it is often associated with a low or “depressed,” mood, this condition can manifest differently in the work setting. Common signs of depression include restlessness, nervousness, and irritability. In addition, employees who have depression may be listless, lethargic, withdrawn, and unproductive. Depression can also result in an obsession with aches, pains, and minor physical discomforts.

On average, employees with depression report the equivalent of 27 lost workdays each year… nine sick days, and 18 days reflecting lost productivity. Similarly, research shows that employees with depression are more likely to lose their jobs, or to change jobs often.

Again, a big part of the problem is stigma, which keeps employees from seeking the care they need; fewer than half of employees with depression actually get adequate clinical intervention, according to a Harvard report.

Bipolar Disorder

Individuals who have bipolar disorder tend to cycle between a very high, energetic mood (mania) and a low, listless mood (depression.)

The impact on the workplace can be significant and wide-ranging. An employee in mania may break rules, act rashly, or exhibit reckless judgment. And an employee in the depressive stage may show some of the same symptoms we mentioned in the previous section.

About six million American adults have bipolar disorder, according to one study. According to researchers, employees with bipolar disorder may take as many as 28 workdays each year, and lose another 35 in missed productivity.

Again, stigma keeps many individuals from seeking the care they need; about two thirds of those with bipolar receive treatment, but few get the level of care they really need to keep their symptoms under control.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders can manifest in a number of different ways, including difficulty concentrating; fatigue; restlessness; and worry. Employees with this condition may have a lot of insecurity about their role in the workplace and seek constant reassurance.

More than six percent of Americans deal with anxiety disorders, and it often takes up to 10 years for these problems to be recognized and diagnosed.

And, anxiety disorders often lead to other mental and physical health symptoms, ranging from insomnia to gastrointestinal problems. As such, employees with anxiety disorders are likely to take a lot of sick days or suffer from low productivity in general.

Investing in Employee Wellbeing

As we have mentioned in the past, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made mental health issues more pronounced; if ever there was a time for employers and HR leaders to create safe, healthy workplaces, it’s now.

A good place to begin is with basic education: Make sure you’re aware of the common mental health disorders and their effect on the workplace. And begin doing everything in your power to break down stigma and encourage employees to seek proper care.

With any questions, reach out to WhiteWater Consulting today.

Prioritizing Mental Health in the Workplace, Post-COVID

As more businesses welcome employees back to the workplace, HR leaders have understandably prioritized physical health and safety. This is entirely appropriate in the wake of the pandemic: Workplaces can and should do everything in their power to promote hygiene and support employee wellbeing.

It is crucial to remember, though, that employee wellness is about more than physical safety. Mental health is also a significant concern. Keep in mind that many employees will return to work feeling anxious, afraid, or depressed; some will be carrying grief from loved ones they have lost, or trepidation that they might become sick themselves. Others may simply feel nervous due to changes and uncertainty in our work environments.

Mental Health as a Priority

Due to these concerns, it is critical that employers and HR leaders develop their back-to-work plans with employee mental health in mind.

Indeed, mental health is a major source of concern for many business leaders. Businessolver recently published the results of their fifth annual State of Workplace Empathy Study, where they found that CEOs, HR leaders, and employees agree that mental health should be a key consideration in the workplace. And yet, the same study also shows that just 69 percent of employees feel that their workplace is sensitive to mental health concerns.

Digging deeper into the numbers, we find the following:

  • Many employees are afraid to reveal their mental health struggles, with 64 percent saying they are concerned about confidentiality. Their fear is that, in being honest about their mental health issues, they could jeopardize their job security.
  • There is a disconnect between employees and leaders. An overwhelming 86 percent of CEOs give their companies high marks for open discussion of mental health issues… but only 58 percent of employees agree.
  • Similarly, 76 percent of CEOs note that their workplaces offer mental health benefits, but only about half of employees are aware of these benefits! Awareness-raising will be a key issue moving forward.
  • About 92 percent of employees say their companies should do more… and 100 percent of HR leaders agree!

What we see here is that mental health concerns loom large among employees and business leadership; and that there remains much work to be done in creating workspaces where mental health is addressed with honesty and sensitivity.

Take Action

As HR leaders start considering their options for improving mental health in the workplace, especially amidst a post-COVID re-opening, there are a few preliminary action steps that we can commend.

  • Start talking honestly and openly about mental health. Make your workplace an environment where people feel comfortable talking about these issues without fear. This must start at the top: Leaders and executives must be the ones who model transparency and vulnerability.
  • Create support systems in which employees can talk with each other not only about logistical aspects of their jobs, but also emotional ones. This may look like team huddles where emotional issues are expressly raised. It may also mean pairing employees to check in with each other in a more confidential, one-on-one setting (such as a “coffee buddies” program).
  • Finally, it is so crucial for employers and HR leaders to develop benefits packages that include mental health care… and, to make sure the scope of those mental health benefits is discussed openly with employees. Again, raising awareness and rejecting stigma will be important going forward.

Ready to find out more about designing (and communicating) benefits packages that put mental health as a priority? Reach out to our team at WhiteWater Consulting at any time.