Mental health in the workplace

Ideally, everyone is always happy, healthy, and productive at work. Unfortunately, this ideal is rarely, if ever, achieved in the real world. Mental illness and substance abuse, as well as physical illness, can cause decreased productivity and safety on the job, increased absenteeism and turnover of employees, increased hiring and training costs, increased healthcare and insurance costs, and other direct and indirect costs that reduce overall productivity and profitability. These issues are concerning – whether the enterprise is large, medium-size, or small, or a commercial business, nonprofit organization, religious organization, educational institution, or government agency.

Statistics published by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH, “http://www.nimh.nih.gov”>www.nimh.nih.gov) indicate nearly one in five American adults had a diagnosable mental illness within the past year, and nearly one in 25 American adults has a serious functional impairment due to a mental illness. The NIMH-funded National Co-morbidity Survey Replication Study states: “Overall, 6 percent of mental illnesses are severely debilitating; the delay from onset until treatment is 6 to 23 years” and “Nearly 60 percent of people with active mental disorders seek no treatment in the prior year.” The director of NIMH, Dr. Thomas R. Insel, Md. has stated, “Mental illnesses are real disorders with real treatments, but too few people receive optimal care.”

Many, if not most, of these persons with a mental illness participate in the workforce, whether by choice or by necessity. Writing in his blog, “Wired for Success” for Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com), Ray Williams contends that “Mental health issues are a silent tsunami in the workplace, one that could engulf organizations in myriad of productivity and profitability problems as well as legal liabilities unless mental health is addressed as seriously as are marketing, compensation and strategic plans.”

Writing in an article for Forbes (www.Forbes.com), Amy Morin notes that the benefits of promoting good mental health in the workplace extend beyond improving productivity and profitability: “Of course, the reasons for promoting good mental health stem beyond a company’s bottom dollar. Supporting employees in feeling their best also reduces suffering on an individual level and serves as a win-win situation for everyone. Despite the multitude of benefits of promoting good mental health, most workplaces do very little to prevent or address emotional problems.”

Executives, managers, supervisors, and owners can collaborate with employees to address these issues and minimize negative effects on the enterprise, its employees, their families, and society. Amy Morin’s article lists some simple ways employers can create a healthy work environment, help workers identify mental health risks, and assist them in addressing mental health issues. However, employers and employees may need access to a professional Employee Assistance Program to deal with their workforce problems.

According to the International Employee Assistance Program Association (IEAPA, www.eapassn.org), “Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) serve organizations and their employees in multiple ways, ranging from consultation at the strategic level about issues with organization-wide implications to individual assistance to employees and family members experiencing personal difficulties. As workplace programs, the structure and operation of each EAP varies with the structure, functioning, and needs of the organization(s) it serves. In general, an EAP is a set of professional services specifically designed to improve and/or maintain the productivity and healthy functioning of the workplace and to address a work organization’s particular business needs through the application of specialized knowledge and expertise about human behavior and mental health.”

According to the IEAPA, “In the US, over 97% of companies with more than 5,000 employees have EAPs. 80% of companies with 1,001 – 5,000 employees have EAPs. 75% of companies with 251 – 1,000 employees have EAPs. A 2008 National Study of Employers following ten years trends related to U.S. workplace policies and benefits shows that the EAP industry continues to grow, with 65% of employers providing EAPs in 2008, up from 56% in 1998.”

Typically, EAPs are employer-funded benefits offered to employees. The IEAPA provides “The EAP Buyer’s Guide” to assist large and medium-size employers with obtaining EAP services tailored to meet their needs. However, small employers may be unable to afford to offer such benefits, although EAP services could help them prevent or address workforce problems. There appears to be a need for an EAP designed and funded to serve small government agencies, educational institutions, corporations, partnerships, and sole proprietorships.

The Washington County Behavioral Health Board could develop and offer such EAP services to local employers and employees. Given the federal, state, and local funding currently available, the board’s role is limited to referring consumers to EAP services existing now. Consumers may call the board at 740-374-6990 to inquire about services available to meet their needs.

James Raney is a member of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board. Behavioral Health Matters appears on the Opinion page on the last Saturday of the month.