Managing Mental Health in the Workplace

Managing Mental Health in the Workplace

About one in five Americans live with a mental health condition. This means that if you’ve got a company with 100 employees, up to 20 of them could be managing mental health concerns every day.

To add to that, roughly one in 17 Hoosiers live with a serious mental illness like schizophrenia. Though these conditions are more rare, about six of your 100 employees could be impacted.

Despite the prevalence of these ailments, there persists a common negative stigma about mental health and the way it affects the workplace. This kind of stigma is so pervasive it leads many afflicted individuals to keep their situation a secret from employers and coworkers – a far cry from a person who may live with a physical condition such as diabetes, for example.

“Recognizing mental health conditions as disabilities that can be accommodated and managed rather than perceiving them as character flaws is the best pathway toward meeting performance goals.”

“You’ve got to work through this” is not a phrase an employer would tell someone with a broken foot or a heart condition, yet it’s the attitude many individuals with depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or other mental illnesses frequently encounter at work. That line of thinking represents an ineffective strategy bred from a lack of understanding, and it ultimately only hurts the bottom lines of companies.

Employers and managers understandably want to get the best levels of performance possible from their employees. Recognizing mental health conditions as disabilities that can be accommodated and managed rather than perceiving them as character flaws is the best pathway toward meeting performance goals. It all begins with an effort to shift a company’s culture and perceptions regarding mental health.

To learn more, we turned to the Indiana branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Indiana, Mental Health America (MHA) of Lake County, and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) for advice. Together, the organizations provided some guidelines on mental health for employers.

Stigma Causes Silence

Part of the reason that mental illness can be so difficult to address is because it’s frequently kept a secret. The sad truth is most mental health symptoms will improve with proper support.

In recent years, many industries have made the push to implement “cultures of safety” within their operations to promote better workplace safety practices. In much the same regard, a cultural shift toward destigmatizing mental illnesses will go a long way toward helping individuals step out of the shadows and connect with treatment.

“Stigma causes silence,” said Barbara Thompson, policy and communications director with NAMI Indiana. “In order to break this stigma, employees and leadership alike need to be able to talk about mental health in the same ways we discuss physical health.”

Renae Vania-Tomczak, president and CEO of MHA of Lake County, agreed, saying, “When employers view mental health issues in a positive way, they can help people break their silence and ultimately see mental health as a ‘normal’ human condition.”

Supervisors can be a model for this line of thinking and raise awareness of resources, provide mentorships, implement flexible work practices, and foster social connectedness. It’s the best way to protect a company’s labor force, as well-supported employees will perform better at work.

Incorporate Mental Health into Training

As in most endeavors, a little bit of training can make a big difference. Educate your employees and supervisors about the ways in which they can support one another by practicing respectful communications, engaging one another socially, taking advantage of wellness programs, and overcoming misconceptions about mental health. This will enable your company to mitigate the impact of illnesses by addressing them more appropriately and compassionately.

“By providing targeted training and tools, management is better equipped to recognize and navigate the complex issues surrounding mental health in the workplace and is better able to support employees’ path to success,” Vania-Tomczak said. “By investing in mental health care for workers, employers can increase productivity and employee retention.”

It’s worth noting that, other than time, many educational opportunities about this topic are available at little to no cost. MHA affiliates throughout the state are available for educational seminars and NAMI provides a wealth of useful materials online, to name a few.

Understand Unique Accommodations

Documents from the SHRM point out that making accommodations for mental health conditions can often be complex for human resource and management officials because of the variety of unique needs and episodic occurrences of such situations. However, these accommodations should be met with the same level of attention that physical impairment accommodations would. Under EEOC and ADA guidelines, these may include some of the following examples:

  • Altered break and work schedule flexibility
  • Permission to work remotely
  • Leaves of absence
  • And others

Also, the organization pointed out that because of privacy regulations, HR personnel should be the ones handling the accommodations and reviewing medical records. As the ADA states, supervisors and managers should be informed about the necessary work restrictions and accommodations, but not details on the condition itself. Managerial caution is advised because the stigma about mental health can easily lead to inappropriate questioning – for example, “why are you sad?”

Ensure Resources are Available

The health insurance packages for most companies typically include a component of mental health, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right fit for your employees. Rather than letting this element go unchecked as just another line item, companies should be asking their benefit advisors about the strength of this component and how it will serve their people.

Also, establishing employee assistance programs as part of an overall occupational wellness policy can have tremendous benefits for companies, not strictly regarding mental health. For best results, it’s better to be proactive have this kind of framework in place before the need arises.

Time for Action

With other workplace health and safety topics at the forefront of many companies’ minds, and a widespread need for a better approach to mental health in the workplace, now is the best time to start rethinking policies to promote openness and eliminate stigma. There’s no reason for a topic with such a profound impact on individuals and companies to remain in the dark. Rebuilding our approach will improve our employees’ lives, our companies’ performance, and invariably our bottom lines.



6% of People are Seriously Affected

Research indicates that as many as 1 in 17 people (about six percent), or more than 380,000 Hoosiers, is living with a serious mental illness like:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Major depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Source: NAMI Indiana

National Stats on How Mental Health Impacts the Workplace

  • Mental health conditions are the leading cause of disability across the United States.
  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year.
  • Depression results in more days of disability than chronic health conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.
  • Untreated mental health conditions cost the economy $200 billion in lost earnings each year through decreased work performance and productivity.
  • Short-term disability claims for mental health conditions are growing 10% annually and can account for 30% or more of the disability burden for the typical employer.
  • 8 of 10 workers with a mental health condition report that shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment.
  • The family is also affected, increasing the use of leave time for family members.

Source: NAMI Indiana, National Committee for Quality Assurance




Sources for this article: NAMI, NAMI Indiana, Mental Health America of Lake County, the Indiana Mental Health America Executive Roundtable, the Society for Human Resource Management, EEOC, ADA

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Category Features, Health