Employer Support for Mental Health Lacking

Study finds disparities in experience by gender, race, age and income

By Dana Wilkie Nov 12, 2014

Age, race, gender and income can make a marked difference in whether workers have experienced mental illness, taken time off to address it or been offered employer resources to deal with it, according to a new study from Workplace Options.

Although mental illness affects about 1 in 4 Americans each year and is a leading cause of workplace absenteeism and reduced productivity, more than 2 in 5 U.S. employees have no workplace support structures or programs they can turn to for help with issues such as stress, anxiety or depression, according to the poll, released Nov. 6, 2014. Less than half (47 percent) of the respondents said their employers offered some type of emotional well-being support, while 11 percent said they had no idea if their companies offered such support.

“This survey shows that most Americans either don’t have or don’t know about emotional support programs available through their employer, and I’m not sure which is worse,” said Dean Debnam, CEO of Workplace Options, a Raleigh, N.C.-based work/life benefits company. “The reality is that mental health issues are a much more serious problem than the business community believes. For employers in other parts of the world, mental health and emotional support for employees is a given. We haven’t reached that point yet in the U.S.”

The poll was conducted by the polling research firm Public Policy Polling from Sept. 25-27 and is based on responses from 609 working Americans.

Respondents were asked if their employer had support structures or benefits—such as an employee assistance program—to help employees dealing with stress, anxiety or other forms of mental illness. They were also asked if they’d ever dealt with their own mental illness or that of a relative, or knew of work colleagues who’d dealt with either. If they had personal experience with mental illness, they were asked if that illness required them to change their work schedules or take time off.

More than 1 in 3 respondents (37 percent) said they’d dealt with a mental illness impacting them or a relative. Almost half—45 percent—said they’d worked with at least one colleague who’d done the same. Nearly 2 in 3 (63 percent) of those who’d personally dealt with mental illness missed work because of it, with 40 percent saying they’d missed several full days, a week or longer.

“When 45 percent of employees that deal with mental health problems have to change their work schedule because of what they’re going through, it’s a sign to the business community that this issue is worthy of some serious attention,” Debnam said.

Responses by Age Group

Nearly half of the 18- to 29-year-old respondents said they’d taken off a week or longer to deal with their own mental illness or a relative’s. This youngest age group was far more likely to have taken this type of time off than 30- to 45-year-olds (28 percent) or 46- to 65-year-olds (17 percent).

“One reason younger workers seem more likely to take time off work to deal with stress, anxiety and other common forms of mental illness is that there is less of a stigma around these issues today than there has been in the past,” said Alan King, president and chief operating officer at Workplace Options, in an interview. “Generations ago, taking time off work because of stress or anxiety may have been perceived as a sign of weakness.”

Yet it was the older workers—those ages 46 to 65—who most often reported having dealt with their own mental illness or a relative’s, with 2 in 5 saying they had. Only about one-third of workers in the younger age brackets reported the same. It was also those in this older age group who most often said their employers’ mental health programs were valuable—with 2 in 3 agreeing to this, compared with about half of those in the younger age groups.

“Older workers are more likely to have dealt with certain mental health challenges that come with age, including dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and certain types of depression,” King said. “People in the 46 to 65 age range run into these issues through their parents, in-laws, spouses and immediate family members far more frequently than people in earlier stages of their lives and careers.”

Race, Gender and Income

Hispanics were far more likely than whites or African-Americans to have made work schedule changes because of mental illness (81 percent), to have taken off a week or more of full workdays because of it (52 percent), or to have had colleagues who’d dealt with mental illness (57 percent).

Women were far more likely than men to have made work schedule changes (51 percent vs. 34 percent), to have taken a week or more off (26 percent vs. 15 percent), to have dealt with their mental illness or a relative’s (44 percent vs. 29 percent), or to know colleagues who’d dealt with mental illness (50 percent vs. 39 percent).

Yet women were less likely than men (40 percent vs. 55 percent) to say that their workplaces offered mental health programs.

Said King: “Women have traditionally played the role of the caretaker more often than men. This dynamic is changing, but women still shoulder more of the caretaking burden when it comes to children, parents, older relatives and other loved ones that need assistance.”

Respondents’ answers were also markedly different based on income. Those earning more than $100,000 a year were more likely than people in lower income groups to work at companies that offered mental health programs, and they were more likely to find those programs valuable. They were also the least likely, at 27 percent, to have dealt with mental illness or to have made work schedule changes because of it.

King said that although mental health issues like depression, stress and anxiety “are fairly well represented at all income levels,” people in demanding careers that pay well “may not notice or acknowledge that they need help or have early warning symptoms.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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