Mental Illness is Costing Workplaces Billions of Dollars. Here Are Some Things Employers Can Do.

By Amanda Haslam Wirtz

The first time I forgot a word mid-sentence, I was in a client meeting. All of a sudden — blank. Nothing. I paused … and then … I just moved on. No one seemed to notice. I felt the heat of embarrassment take over my face and body, but I was able to recover quickly and move on with the meeting.

I got used to forgetting words like that during my pregnancy. It was disturbing, but I realized it was a part of the process of growing life and changing hormones.

But what I felt when I came back to work after I gave birth was a different story.

During my first in-person client meeting, everything that came out of my mouth sounded strained and forced in my mind, so I stopped talking altogether. I shut down. At the end of the first day, I was supposed to lead a presentation, but I couldn’t remember what I had prepared for entire sections of my presentation. The result made losing one word at a time during my pregnancy seem like an Academy Award-winning performance. This time, instead of feeling the heat of embarrassment, I felt a lack of control. No matter how many times I told my brain to get back in the game, it couldn’t.

As we were driving back to the airport from our client meetings, the project leader said to our group, “Doesn’t this work just make you excited to do what we do?” That’s when it hit me how changed I was by what I now know was depression. My work used to exciting. But now, I felt nothing.

Read more: How you can help create a new path to treat depression and anxiety

I began to feel numb all the time. Finding the balance between work and my new home life felt unmanageable, which brought anxiety and, at times, complete shutdown. I found myself on calls unable to remember what the other person had said a minute ago, let alone at the beginning of the call. The motivation I once had to work any hours necessary to produce my best work was gone.

Looking back, I now understand that I was experiencing the first symptoms of depression. My work quality and confidence suffered, and I felt like I could recognize it but for the first time, I couldn’t control it.

And I wasn’t the only one.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health accounts for five of the ten most prevalent disabilities worldwide. Depression, in particular, is “one of the most common health problems of adults in the United States workforce,” and roughly 20% of the adult working population suffers from mental health issues.

We all know that we spend more time at work than with our own families. Yet when an employee or someone we manage has a dramatic change in demeanor, or their quality of work suffers, we assume they aren’t motivated instead of considering what we can’t see — their mental or physical health.

Workplace culture can have a significant impact on helping or hindering mental wellbeing. Small changes to a company’s culture around mental health will not only improve the lives of employees, they could also have a major impact on overall productivity and costs.

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, the total economic burden of major depression alone was estimated to be $210.5 billion in 2010 — up 20 percent from 2005. Nearly half of these costs are related to workplace productivity, including missed work or reduced productivity while at work. The remaining costs are direct medical costs, which also impact employers who share those costs with employees.

Supporting employee mental health makes sense for employee satisfaction — as well as the bottom line.

Here are four tips to help you make improvements to your work culture and management style, based on recommendations from the World Health Organization:

  • Reward and recognize employees for their efforts and achievements — not for the time they work above and beyond the normal workday.

  • Be aware of the physical and mental health needs of individual employees, and make sure they are aware of resources to help them meet those needs.

  • Create and encourage time in the day for all employees to allow their brains and bodies to recover from their work.

  • Maintain an open dialogue by regularly discussing stresses, concerns and symptoms of depression and anxiety in a way that produces solutions and leaves employees feeling heard and supported. Openly talking about depression and anxiety can help break down the stigma and encourage people to get the help they need.

Social support from managers and fellow colleagues is critical for employees to manage stress, create mental or physical reprieve, and feel greater satisfaction at work. Take the time to create support systems and you’ll find a happier workforce, a decrease in turnover and an improvement in productivity.

It’s time for us to provide the solutions for treating depression and anxiety before employees even experience their first symptom.

It's also time to change the way we treat depression and anxiety.

Back our project today!

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