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Minimizing Mental Health at Work Can Be Costly

No matter what you do or where you work, you hear it all the time: mental health diagnoses to describe everyday behavior.

“First the CEO loved the idea, now he hates it; I think he’s bipolar!”

“She’s so ADD, she’s all over the place in our meetings.”

“Jamie and Casey would make really great managers because they are OCD about details and schedules.”

In the United States, full time employees spend an average of 47 hours working, in some cases, spending more time with colleagues than with family members, making emotional responses and hasty conclusions about behavior all the more prevalent but not any less problematic. The inherent challenge: Some of these symptoms do resemble qualities of mental illness, making them easy to apply to nonclinical circumstances.

However, the consequences of such a flippant attitude and a lack of understanding about the mental health of employees and colleagues can have significant consequences, including financially, for employers, co-workers and sufferers, leading to losses in productivity, absenteeism and employee turnover.

In fact, according to studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, depending on the mental health issue, mental illness can cost 4 to 28 workdays lost and 11 to 35 days of reduced productivity per employee. Employees who have Attention Deficit Disorder are 18 times more likely to be disciplined and 2 to 4 times more likely to be terminated. Depression alone can cause as many as 200 million lost work days to employers each year, costing $17 billion to $44 billion.

To reduce the costs and maintain a healthy work environment, it is not enough to simply offer mental health provisions via the company’s health benefits plan. Employers and human resources teams need to be proficient in mental health literacy, that is, know when to help. Especially in the post-recession work environment, employees can be more reluctant to seek treatment out of fear they may jeopardize their jobs.

One way companies can address the imperative of mental health literacy is to host Mental Health First Aid sessions in the workplace, with a provider certified by the National Council for Behavioral Health. Mental Health First Aid teaches participating employers and employees how to recognize and respond to the most common workplace mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and substance abuse.

The eight-hour training course uses role-playing and simulations to demonstrate how to assess a mental health crisis; select interventions and provide initial help; and connect individuals to professional, peer and social supports as well as self-help resources. The program instructs the principles of ALGEE:

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  • Listen nonjudgmentally
  • Give reassurance and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies

By creating an environment supportive of mental health needs, employers can create a more productive workplace. In fact, a Harvard Medical School Study found that at-risk employees assigned to telephone intervention counseling were more likely to keep their jobs and demonstrated improved productivity by nearly three extra hours of work per week. This additional work was calculated to have a value of an additional $1,800 per year to employers at a nominal cost of approximately $100-$400 per employee. In other words, it pays for itself.

By better understanding what mental health and mental illness are and are not, employees can be equipped with the appropriate language to identify and resolve an issue. Maybe Jamie and Casey would make great managers, but it’s not because of their “OCD,” it’s because of their talent for careful decision making. The CEO isn’t “bipolar” because he changed his mind, he’s responding to new information but needs professional development in pragmatism and communication. Perhaps your manager does have ADD, but better identifying her challenges and skills could improve her managerial prowess. Without the benefit of mental health literacy, a company may never know the difference, to its own detriment.

Jean Nemenzik

Jean Nemenzik, LMSW is the clinical director for Kadima, serving Metro Detroiters with mental health needs from Southfield, Mich. Nemenzik leads the Mental Health First Aid program and is responsible for development of training curriculum for residential and clinical services for Kadima. More at kadimacenter.org.

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