Take Steps Toward Mental Health

Use your Business Acumen to make the case for investing in the mental health of employees

By Mariam Ganiyu, M.A. May 4, 2017
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​Mental illness affects an estimated 43.4 million adults in the U.S., the National Institute of Mental Health reports. That's almost the population of California, the most populous state, and its neighbor Arizona combined. Unfortunately, while the effects of mental illness on those who suffer from it are widely known, its effects in the workplace are rarely acknowledged—and the impact on the organizational bottom line is profound.

Employees suffering from mental illnesses have higher rates of absenteeism, presenteeism (working while sick) and turnover. Depression ranked first, ahead of obesity, as the most costly health condition for organizations, according to a study cited by the American Mental Health Counselors Association. Untreated mental illness, research indicates, costs an estimated $105 billion in productivity losses each year. This is where the HR competency of Business Acumen comes into play.

Business Acumen is the ability to understand and apply information to contribute to the organization's strategic plan. HR professionals proficient in this behavioral competency recognize the relationship between employees' mental health and the health of the organization.

HR professionals may find it challenging to reasonably accommodate individuals with mental disabilities, partly because these conditions are often hidden. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects job applicants and employees from discrimination and harassment based on mental disabilities, in addition to covering those with physical disabilities. The ADA does not require applicants and employees to disclose their mental health status, but if they are seeking reasonable accommodations, individuals can be required to provide documentation that shows they have a disability. Reasonable accommodations are required unless providing them would cause the employer an undue hardship.

What employers may not realize is that even with protections in place, employees are still fearful of telling managers about their challenges. A 2015 article in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry estimated that 85 percent of employees' mental illnesses go undiagnosed or untreated. Employees are afraid of being stigmatized and discriminated against. Limited access to mental health care and high out-of-pocket fees for such care also lead to fewer employees being diagnosed and treated. We can't rely on laws alone to support employees and increase productivity levels.

HR professionals should apply their Business Acumen to make the business case for investing in mental health, as it correlates with the organization's bottom line. Once mental health initiatives have been implemented, HR professionals should go a step further and calculate the return on investment to justify the continuation of support.

Here are some ways to make changes in your organization: 

  • Assess the organization's mental health needs. Once assessments are made, offer treatment options that will have a greater impact on the mental health of employees and the business.
  • Reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. Create a culture of acceptance to encourage employees to step out their comfort zones and seek the help they need. Find effective methods of opening dialogue throughout the organization on mental health issues.
  • Tell employees about available resources. Employees may be unaware of what options are available to help them; communicating these options may provide encouragement to those seeking help. Consider hosting an organizationwide Mental Health Day to boost awareness and better understanding of employees' mental health needs.
  • Be open to providing job accommodations. Employees coping with mental illness may require work accommodations, job reassignments or schedule changes. If they can perform the essential job functions, be open and accommodating to their needs.

Mental Health Month has been observed in May in the U.S. since 1949, led by Mental Health America, which conducts awareness activities and offers toolkit materials, and by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, whose efforts include fighting stigma and providing support, education and advocacy.

Mariam Ganiyu, M.A., is an HR competencies intern at SHRM.

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