Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Mental Health at Work

In recent years, and accelerated by the pandemic, employers are recognizing that mental health matters at work. Of course it does. We don’t leave our mental health at the door when we enter the office regardless of whether we are physically going to our workplace or signing in to work online.

Although true since forever, the term workplace mental health has ascended in use as shown in the Google ngram graph depicted above. Moving from recognizing workplace mental health to prioritizing mental health at work is new and challenging territory. What evidence do we have that we need to enhance workplace mental health efforts?

1. Mental health burden and lack of access to care. According to the WHO, one in every eight people in the world lives with a mental disorder. Full-time employees spend more waking hours at work than engaged in any other single activity, so it makes sense that untreated mental health needs have a profound impact in the workplace where mental ill health is the leading cause of absenteeism and presenteeism. As significant as the burden is, the difficulty accessing care is equally significant. Around the world, cost, access, and stigma mean that the majority of people with mental health needs never get care. A study of more than 36,000 people found that this was true of 62 percent of people with mood disorders, 76 percent of people with anxiety disorders, and 81 percent of people with substance use disorders.

2. Increased Productivity and Improved Work Performance. When mental health needs are effectively addressed, employees are better able to focus on work during the workday. Organizations can support employees who are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions by ensuring a supportive environment, providing useful information, and facilitating access to treatment. We have strong evidence that such efforts prevent problems from growing and promote coping and resilience. This leads to positive impacts on employee health, work engagement, and performance.

3. Reduced Absenteeism, Turnover, and Injuries. We have many effective treatments for a range of mental health problems. When individuals have access to such care, their health improves and the benefits multiply. Employees with better mental health are more engaged at work and are also less likely to think about leaving their job. A recent study published in JAMA reported on the efficacy of an employer-sponsored mental health program, Spring Health. Based on data from 1132 participants working at 66 different companies, they found that when employees had access to mental health services provided by employers, they missed fewer work days and also had fewer unproductive work days.

4. Enhanced Reputation, Recruitment, and Retention. Companies that focus on mental health in the workplace are perceived to be more desirable places to work, which enhances recruitment and retention of the best and brightest employees. A recent survey found that half of millennials and 75% of Gen-Zers have left a job, both voluntarily and involuntarily, partially due to mental health reasons. Over 60% of young professionals today describe wanting to work for a company that supports their mental health and well-being. Not only does a strong mental health program enhance reputation and recruitment, it also increases retention. The JAMA study noted above found that employees who accessed employer sponsored mental health services were 1.6 times more likely to remain in their current employment compared to those who did not.

5. Good Mental Health Programs are also good DEI Programs. And vice versa. When organizations attend to employee mental health, they also address essential issues linked to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Representation and transparency are paramount to both mental health and DEI programs. Good mental health programs protect employee wellbeing and safety, promote a positive work culture, provide access to mental health services, and tailor programs to the particular needs of diverse employees who have been historically marginalized. DEI efforts prioritize evidence-based practices for the psychological safety of all employees, such as putting systems in place to address interpersonal bias, microaggressions, and other subtle but harmful behaviors in the workplace. In a recent study, Black and Latinx people reported experiencing more symptoms of mental disorders than their White counterparts, and reported greater likelihood of leaving a job for mental health reasons that were linked to workplace discrimination and race-based trauma and stress. It is no wonder that workplace mental health and diversity, equity, and inclusion are both top priorities in today’s workplace.

In the rapidly evolving world of work, some truths are perennial. One of those is that mental health matters. Another is that each of us can contribute to creating workplaces that protect, promote, and provide care for the mental health needs of our workforce. Good for individual employees. Good for business. Good for us all.

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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