Let's Talk: Mental Health and the Workplace

Mental illness is a scary topic for a lot of people to talk about, and one that many people aren't familiar with. It's likely that you know more than one person who lives with a chronic mental disorder, or has coped with it in the past. If you don't work alone, it's likely you work with someone who does. The way we address mental illness in the American workplace is costly. Between disability leave, presenteeism, and the toll on one's health from suffering in silence, the cost of avoiding this issue is high and heavy. We spend a large portion of our waking lives at work. For the sake of our friends, family and colleagues, let's talk about mental illness in the workplace.

In the midst of the changing American work culture, it's important that we look at a few of the problems with how we approach the topic of mental illness. One of the most frequent problems I read about and hear about is a lack of compassion for those who suffer. Many times this comes from not knowing how to handle the situation, and the simple fact that entering into someone else's pain demands a certain level of vulnerability, and is, therefore, scary. In place of compassion, those suffering are offered blame and shame, and careless words (things like, "Suck it up!" and "You're not the only one stressed out around here!"). After dealing with this day in and day out for extended periods of time, many people quit. At best, their ability to do their job suffers greatly (presenteeism). We can't ignore, dismiss, or minimize the problem, or reprimand those suffering and then be shocked when their performance suffers, or when they quit without notice.

Our hesitancy to address mental illness is understandable. For managers, talking about it with subordinates is risky. One wrong word can invite a discrimination lawsuit. The financial burden placed on companies by employees coping with a mental disorder is a large one. More people miss work for mental health issues than any other physical condition (cancer, heart disease) which costs employers $80B–$100B annually in lost productivity. Further, mental illness accounts for 30% of disability costs, and that number is rising. In the interest of sustainability, these numbers should motivate company leaders to ensure that their workplace is a safe place for people who live with mental illness. Most importantly, the toll that this takes on our friends and colleagues cannot be justified, and many times, only makes the weight of suffering heavier.

In the AMC hit, Mad Men, Don Draper once said, "If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation." This is the first step in transforming our companies into ones that help, rather than hurt, those who live with and suffer from mental health problems. Employers can start by listening to employees who are coping and being sensitive to their needs, empathizing as much as possible. In doing this, we build relationships that are conducive to a healthy work environment, and offer support to those who need it. Another way you can support your employees is arranging a way for them to work from home in the event that their condition doesn't allow them to leave home (anxiety disorders, crippling depression, just to name a few). If your company doesn't have a mental health initiative to educate and raise awareness about mental health, get one started. Education combined with support for workers is a powerful combination that is good for the workplace and worker alike.

For employees, it is important for workers to be aware that mental illness is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When it comes to talking with your boss, it may be comforting to know that the ADA is on your side. Know that it's okay to speak out. If you don't know if you can talk to your boss about it, finding a trusted co-worker can be like finding an ally in war zone. If you're not ready to talk about it, explore what your company offers for support. Many companies have an employee assistance plan (EAP) that is designed to offer confidential support for anything you may be coping with that affects your work. Lastly, one of the best options available is seeking counseling from a trained mental health professional. The stress of trying to hold down a job and slog through the burden of mental illness is overwhelming at times. The healthier you are mentally, the better off you will be both in and out of the office. It's okay to make your mental health your top priority.

For as many people suffer from mental illness, this is a pressing issue that everyone can play a role in resolving. Through education, advocacy and compassion, we can start to lift the burden from workers who suffer on the clock. If the office can't always be a refuge, it should, at the very least, be a safe place to suffer. Let's start the conversation.

Works Cited:
Pyrillis, Rita. "A Monumental Problem." Mental Health Issues Have Become a Monumental Problem in the Workforce. Workforce, 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 05 Sept. 2015.

This post was originally written for Test of Time Design.