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How does mental illness affect your life? It is likely that you, and every employee in your place of work, know someone who has a mental illness. In fact, it is estimated that about one-third of those with a mental illness are employed.

And according to the National Institute on Mental Illness, nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce (28 million workers ages 18-54) will experience a mental or substance abuse disorder. Some of the most prevalent mental illnesses in the workplace include:

  • Alcohol abuse/dependence: 9 percent of workers
  • Depression: 8 percent of workers
  • Social anxiety disorder: 7 percent of workers

Despite these significant statistics, 71 percent of workers with mental illnesses have never sought help from a medical or mental health specialist for their symptoms.

One of the most undertreated and misunderstood mental illnesses in the workplace is depression. The mood disorder is more than a passing feeling and is a major—but treatable—illness. Depression affects all walks of life and even a formerly outstanding employee can be affected. No job title, organization, or personality type is immune.

When left untreated, mental illness can be costly to both the individual and the workforce. A RAND Corporation study found that patients with depressive symptoms spend more days in bed than those with diabetes, arthritis, back problems, lung problems, or gastrointestinal disorders. Depression accounts for close to $12 billion in lost workdays each year. Additionally, more than $11 billion in other costs accrue from decreased productivity due to symptoms that sap energy, affect work habits, and cause problems with concentration, memory, and decision making. These costs can increase even more if an employee’s depression is linked to substance abuse.

The good news for employers and employees is that mental illness is treatable. According to the World Health Organization, the vast majority (60-80 percent) of people with a mental health disorder will improve with proper diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Prescription medication treatments also can be successful, especially when combined with talk therapy.

Encouraging a Mentally Healthy Workplace
There are several areas to consider when making your workplace mental health-friendly. Some ways to make your workplace mentally healthy include:

  • Employee wellness programs that incorporate mental health
  • Manager trainings in mental health workplace issues
  • Support for employees who seek mental health treatment or who require hospitalization and disability leave
  • An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other appropriate referral resource
  • Health care that treats mental illness with the same urgency as physical illness
  • Regular communication to employees regarding equal opportunity employment, wellness, and similar topics promoting an accepting work environment

Early intervention and prevention programs can be fundamental in preventing progress towards a full-blown disease, controlling symptoms of mental illness, and improving outcomes. Anonymous online screenings are an effective way to reach employees who underestimate the effects of their own condition and are unaware of helpful resources. A screening program can also work well for small organizations that lack official EAP services. Quality mental health programs for employees can reduce stigma, raise awareness, teach managers how to recognize symptoms and help organizations deal with depression and effectively and compassionately manage employees.

It is important to assess your current work environment for effective mental health policies and programs. From employee morale to the company’s bottom line, mental health can affect all areas of the workplace. When the mental health of one employee is prioritized, the entire organization will benefit.

Information for this article was obtained from: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Workplaces That Thrive: A Resource for Creating Mental Health-Friendly Work Environments. SAMHSA Pub. No. P040478M. Rockville, MD: Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2004.