According to a recent survey of HR professionals and senior managers, mental illness is “the leading cause of indirect costs associated with lost work time.” And although both the prevalence and cost of mental health issues in the workplace are viewed as problematic, employers are not effectively grappling with the problem.

The study, “Innerworkings: A Look at Mental Health in Today’s Workplace,” was conducted by Employee Benefit News in conjunction with The Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals LP. The study encompassed more than 500 HR-benefits professionals and senior executives representing more than 50 business segments from across the country.
This study reveals that mental illness is exacting a high economic toll in the workplace:

HR-benefits directors say mental illness has far more impact on the indirect costs associated with lost productivity and absenteeism than physical problems. Nearly one-third of the survey respondents (31%) believe mental illness has the greatest adverse impact – more than twice the number who blamed back problems (14%) and three times the number identifying substance abuse, asthma/allergies and smoking as the culprits.

Their rankings are supported by other studies showing the cost of mental illness in the workplace. For example, a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that a worker with depression averaged 27.2 lost workdays annually due to absence or poor functioning on the job, and an employee with bipolar disorder averaged 65.5 days.

The good news: many benefits in place
HR managers and employers report that the availability of benefits designed to address mental health issues is high: 90% of the respondents cite mental health insurance coverage, 76% cite employee assistance program (EAP) availability, and 63% have return to work programs for disabled workers.

The bad news: benefits are not fully utilized
Despite treatment availability, respondents point to low utilization, citing a variety of factors. Common employee factors hindering utilization are lack of awareness of available help and the stigma and shame associated with mental health issues. In addition, respondents indicated that managers and supervisors may be part of the problem because they often fail to encourage benefit utilization. Fewer than 25% of respondents felt that managers understand the scope of the problems that mental health issues pose, and only 15% of the respondents had training to help managers recognize problems and point employees to help.

This study mirrors much of what we see in treating troubled employees. We strongly believe that line managers are often pivotal in spotting at-risk employees early and directing workers to help before problems are exacerbated. But because good training is often unavailable, supervisors and managers are often ill-equipped to identify and address problems effectively. Particularly when issues appear to be related to non-work matters, supervisors can be reluctant to address problems, either because they don’t know how to or because they think it is not their business. Therefore, problems are often ignored until they rise to the level of a crisis. Yet our experience and numerous studies show that early intervention can help to effectively resolve problems. Supervisors should know that they do not need to (and should not) attempt to diagnose or treat personal or psychological problems, but should understand the importance of identifying employees who may be at risk and referring these employees on to HR managers and the benefit programs that can provide help or treatment.

Liberty Mutual recently studied mental health disability claims and issued recommendations for best practices for managing claims involving psychological issues. These include:

  • Quickly involve the experts
  • Know what’s happening at work
  • Make sure physicians communicate
  • Manage the condition

The cited article discusses each of these practices in greater depth, and states that employers implementing these practices have cut the number of disability claims related to psychological issues by as much as 10 percent.


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