The last year has been an emotional roller coaster. We went from living routine lives to dealing with the effects of a global pandemic. People have been confined to home, and some have been isolated from their support systems. From a business perspective, the ride has been tumultuous. “Non-essential workers” were furloughed or had their work environment shifted from the corporate office to the kitchen table. Businesses closed – some permanently. Others, like our healthcare heroes and service workers, remained on the frontline as nearly 32 million cases of COVID-19 resulted in 568,000 deaths. The weight of personal struggles were compounded by the professional realities for many.
More than a year later, the promise of returning to “normal” appears within grasp. Vaccines are available. Mandates are being lifted. Reunions have occurred. But, is it really that simple? Will life eventually return to its pre-2020 state? While this complex question requires – and deserves – more than can be addressed in this brief article, there is one aspect that will be important for businesses to consider – which has sometimes been overlooked – the mental health of its employees.
The adage of “don’t bring your personal problems to work” ignores the fact that humans are unable to “turn off” emotions or “forget” life’s stressors when they cross the threshold of their place of employment. The reality is that the pandemic has created new challenges and compounded emotional distress. Further, the changing landscape of the workplace, for example increased telecommuting, has individuals working and living within the same space, and often with other priorities such as childcare and e-learning also requiring new approaches. Although employees have an obligation not to allow their
personal life to interfere with their work, employers have an obligation to be aware of mental health and
be committed to action.
In simplest terms, awareness starts with being open to the reality that many people – 1 in 5 – will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, with anxiety and depression being the most prevalent. Because mental illness continues to carry significant stigma, there is reluctance to admit a problem exists or to seek treatment. Of the 20% of the population with a mental health disorder, less than half will get help, and many will have suffered for more than a decade before that.
Mental illness is caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Like obesity, diabetes, and other health conditions, it is not simply something that an individual can “get over.” While personal responsibility is important – just like diet and exercise for physical health – genetics and predispositions play a significant role. Blame and shame only contribute to the problem.
The symptoms of mental illness can be subtle and sometimes hard to distinguish from everyday emotional changes. The key is when they last for sustained periods, when they are a new behavior for an individual, and most importantly when they impact the ability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems. Here are a few things to watch for:
● Unusual, intense mood changes, especially sadness, anger, or euphoria
● Excessive worrying or fears that are unfounded
● Lack of ability to concentrate or complete tasks
● Withdrawal from people or activities
● Difficulty getting along with others
● Physical symptoms or changes in sleeping, eating, or energy level
● Bizarre behaviors such as hallucinations or delusions
● Inappropriate use of alcohol or drugs
● Thoughts or actions of self-harm including suicide
Certainly, awareness is part of action, but it is only the beginning. Employers need to create a culture where mental health is encouraged and mental illness is accepted and treated. Why? Because it costs money to ignore it! In early 2020, Forbes reported on a 2018 American Heart Association study that companies lose $17,241 per year in incremental healthcare and productivity costs for each person with major depressive disorder. That is costly to the bottom line. And it’s just one example.
So, what other actions can businesses undertake? Here’s a short list to start:
● Education & Advocacy
In addition to business leaders educating themselves about mental health issues, they can also educate employees. Put an article in the company newsletter. Hang a flyer by the time clock. Encourage managers to be empathetic and open to listening to employees’ personal struggles.
Information on mental health and mental illness is readily available on the Internet for both education and training, and several organizations have specific programs catered for the workplace. Below are some great resources:
Mental Health America of Arizona (https://www.mhaarizona.org)
– Mental Health in the Workplace Training Program
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Arizona (http://www.namiarizona.org)
Mental Health First Aid (https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/about/)
– Mental Health First Aid at Work
National 24-Hour Crisis Hotlines
– National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
– National Substance Use and Disorder Issues Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
– Text: Text the word “HOME” to 741741
Thanks to mental health parity laws, insurance plans are prevented from providing lesser benefits for mental health disorders. Employers can promote the availability of mental health coverage. Additionally, many plans may have their own specialized initiatives for mental health.
Using paid time off (PTO) for mental health should be encouraged, or at least not discouraged. When appropriate, employers should educate employees about the use of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or protections from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to preserve their job when longer leaves or accommodations are needed.
Employee assistance programs (EAP) offer an additional benefit to address mental health issues.
Although the average cost is about $35 per year per employee, research indicates a return on
investment of about $13 for every $1 spent.
In the end, employers can educate and offer benefits, but they cannot make employees take advantage of them. Sometimes, people are in denial about their need to get help. When this happens and it’s effecting performance, employees may need to be persuaded: get help or face
progressive discipline. While never ideal, it may be what is needed.
Lastly, although hopefully rare, mental health crises may arise in the workplace that require swift
action. As a last resort, employers should recognize when an emergency is occurring and be
prepared to call 911.
People are our greatest resource. Their mental health must be a priority. If we don’t take care of them,
how can we expect them to take care of our business?
Good mental health to you and yours!
Written by Phoenix Medical Psychiatric Hospital and its partner provider group AIMS, LLC