Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Whistle While You Work

This Monday is Labor Day in the United States. Marking the unofficial end of summer, it makes for a long weekend and serves as the last hurrah for backyard BBQs. But its real purpose, when it was designated as a federal holiday in 1894, was to recognize the American Labor Movement and improvements in working conditions.

Working conditions have come a long way in the last 100 years (think Upton Sinclair and The Jungle), but when it comes to mental health and work, we still have a long way to go. 

1. Ignoring mental health costs a fortune in terms of economic productivity. According to the World Bank, not being able to work as a result of depression alone cost the US at least $800 billion dollars in 2010. By 2030, that cost will more than double if we don’t do something different from what we are doing today. Globally, the loss in economic productivity due to mental health and substance use disorders is in the trillions of dollars.

2. The mental health pay gap is huge. It is challenging enough to live with serious depression or anxiety for example, but consider that such individuals are also likely to earn up to 42% less than their peers. According to the British Equality and Human Rights Commission, this gap is twice that of the male-female wage gap, which has garnered much more support historically.

3. Kudos to companies like Goldman Sachs that are addressing mental health in the workplace. Goldman Sachs, American Airlines, and others are increasing their focus on mental health needs for employees and family members, and the returns on investment are real. Employers who invest in effective mental health programs for their workers have increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, presenteeism and employee turnover, and lower psychiatric hospitalization costs.

4. Getting back to work is possible. Sometimes getting well means leaving work – this is true for mental health in the same way that it is true for hip replacement, breast cancer, and many other health conditions. Getting back to work can be difficult for individuals with severe mental health problems, but it shouldn’t be impossible. When employees have access to workplace reintegration programs, they report improved health, decreased number and length of hospital admissions, increased time without relapse, and reduced use of emergency facilities.

5. May your work be in keeping with your purpose.These words from Leonardo da Vinci are true for all of us, with or without diagnosed mental health conditions. The benefits of purposeful work are many. As we take the time to celebrate this Labor Day weekend, it behooves us to contemplate what we consider our own purpose when it comes to work.

For me, this includes advocating for greater understanding, integration and opportunity in the workplace for individuals with mental illness so that all of us have access to work with dignity and purpose.

Picture of 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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