An estimated 10.4 million American workers use illegal drugs and 24% report drinking alcohol during the workday at least once in the past year. Major depressive disorder affects an estimated 14.8 million people ages 18 and older. Depression is one of the top three problems employee assistance professionals confront in the workplace. Moreover, work itself can play a significant role in the development of mental health issues. Many Americans work more hours without an associated increase in pay, and 83% feel stressed about their jobs.
Glen is a supervisor at a large manufacturing plant that employs 4,600 people. The work at his plant entails operating expensive, potentially dangerous machinery requiring a high level of alertness. Given the statistics mentioned above, there is a high likelihood Glen will encounter one or several employees who are struggling with alcohol or substance abuse or mental health issues. Glen must walk a fine line between safeguarding the company's assets and the well-being of his charges. There are several key ways to promote the mental health of employees while protecting a company's legal and financial interests.
1. Prevention: Promote mental health as part of an overall corporate wellness campaign. Periodically, bring in professionals who specialize in mental health and substance abuse issues to present mandatory, yet interesting (food optional) educational seminars. That will not only increase knowledge and awareness among employees but also help reduce the stigma attached to these disorders. If your company does not have an official corporate wellness or employee assistance program, contact local organizations to see if they have educational materials or support groups and make these resources available to all employees. Businesses who have done so reported reductions in health expenses and other financial gains for their organizations.
2. Awareness: Many drug addictions and mental health disorders cause changes in sleep, mood, appetite, weight, behavior, and personality. Alcohol detected on breath, incoherent speech, or drunk/stoned behavior are overt signs of substance use. However, several other telltale signs may indicate an employee is struggling with mental illness and/or an alcohol or substance use disorder. Symptoms include unexplained or unauthorized absences from work, frequent tardiness, taking excessive sick leave, missed deadlines, careless or incomplete work, overly passive or aggressive behavior, and production quotas not being met. Sensitivity training for management and HR and the availability of appropriate professional information and referral resources are paramount. These steps can help employers effectively manage situations before they escalate out of control.
3. Drug-Free Workplace: The concept of a drug-free workplace harkens back to Ronald Reagan signing into law a ban on the use of drugs by federal employees, and subsequent enactment of the Drug-Free Workplace Act in 1988. Although some industries are mandated to conduct routine drug testing, many companies who do so voluntarily believe it is an effective way to enforce a drug-free workplace. Employers need to be cognizant of the fact that most employees regard drug testing as intrusive and a sign of distrust. Companies should craft legally sound drug and alcohol policies with clearly stated rules regarding alcohol/substance use. The written policies should detail available interventions for employees who admit having problems, as well as repercussions for those who refuse to seek help.
4. Work-Life Balance and Accommodations: The Family Medical Leave Act entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and professionally diagnosed medical reasons, including mental illness or alcohol/substance use disorders. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" to assist people with disabilities, including mental health impairments, perform job duties. There are simple ways employers can help workers with mental health issues. These include encouraging the use of written checklists, instructions, and electronic organizers; offering more training time; providing a mentor for daily guidance; dividing larger tasks into smaller assignments; meeting regularly to discuss progress; and allowing flexible scheduling. Stress reduction approaches can run the gamut from pre-work or lunchtime peer discussion groups to on-site exercise opportunities.
5. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): Back in the late 1940s-early 1950s, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence discovered the workplace was an ideal place to tackle alcoholism by focusing on employee job performance and access to treatment. Today, EAPs are designed to address substance abuse and addictions, as well as personal and family problems, mental health or emotional issues, marital or parenting problems, and financial or legal concerns. EAPs have evolved and grown in popularity during the last 25 years. The number of organizations with an EAP increased from 31% in 1985 to 75% in 2009. Providing a variety of treatment options for an employee will not only help reduce their suffering - it will curtail the incidence of impaired functioning at work.
To successfully promote mental wellness in the workplace, employers need to utilize viable solutions that benefit everyone involved. An informed approach helps boost employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity while protecting the company's legal and financial interests.