Why Employers Need To Talk About Mental Illness In The Workplace

Employees are afraid of discussing it with co-workers and bosses. They don't want to lose their jobs, damage relationships or risk future employers learning of illnesses and judging them. The stigma of mental illness keeps them silent.
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View Of Busy Stock Traders Office
View Of Busy Stock Traders Office

This is the third part in a series about mental health and illness at the workplace. Here are the first two parts:

The workplace is the most important environment to discuss mental health and illness, yet it is the last place we expect to hear about it.

Employees are afraid of discussing it with co-workers and bosses. They don't want to lose their jobs, damage relationships or risk future employers learning of illnesses and judging them. The stigma of mental illness keeps them silent.

Employers have the opportunity to change this climate of fear regarding mental health at the workplace. They rarely do, though. Roughly 85% of employee's mental health conditions are undiagnosed or untreated.

There is plenty of motivation for them to step up. Mental health conditions cost employers more than $100 billion and 217 million lost workdays each year. By addressing mental health issues in the workplace and investing in mental health care for workers, employers can increase productivity and employee retention.

The issue goes beyond making the workplace better, though. Here are more reasons why investing in mental health treatment and discussing mental health in the workplace will benefit all of us (and in all parts of our lives):

Helping People Become Happier, Confident and More Productive

Let's say there is an employee who has been diagnosed with panic disorder and suffers from panic attacks during work. He sometimes runs out of a meeting dripping with sweat.

In an environment where he doesn't feel comfortable talking about his panic disorder, the situation could become much worse. He might not seek treatment, causing his performance to plummet. His supervisors might consider firing him.

In a workplace where he felt he could talk with his boss about the issue, the situation could turn around. The boss could recommend ways to cope with the panic disorder at the office. They could work together to create a plan that might allow the employee to improve his performance and become more valuable to the company. These results would improve his overall happiness and confidence.

Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness

Imagine a woman who deals with depression. In the late evening she video chats with a therapist who tells her the depression is nothing to be ashamed of. She is lucky enough to have family members and friends or a romantic partner who helps her fight that stigma. They accept her depression.

Then she goes to work in the morning. No one talks about mental illness. It's as if it doesn't exist.

On the rare occasions she does hear about it, the conversations are not positive. Her co-workers don't have enough education to be sensitive. They accuse people of using mental illness as an excuse to be lazy or receive special treatment.

She wants to believe her therapist and loved ones when they say her mental illness isn't a weakness. It's hard to, however, when no one at work is coming forward. None of the people she spends the majority of her time with are telling her there is nothing wrong with her, that depression is OK.

When people want to view their mental health issues in a positive way, they need encouragement and acceptance in all parts of their life. Inconsistencies or an absence of positive rhetoric in one environment can make it harder to fight the stigma of mental illness.

Creating a Culture of Acceptance

Now envision the ideal scenario: employers disclose their mental health issues to employees, give presentations on mental health and encourage people to discuss mental health issues whenever they feel like it.

Philanthropist Adam Shaw creates this environment in his workplace by being open about his obsessive compulsive disorder and discussing it with staff. He also co-wrote a book, "Pulling the trigger: OCD, Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Related Depression -- The Definitive Survival and Recovery Approach."

Shaw encourages employees to be open about their mental health issues or at least share "quirks" that make them unique. The goal is to make employers feel an obligation to address mental health and help people see mental illness as "a normal human condition."

Practices like Shaw's create a culture of acceptance that benefits everyone, according to workplace mental health consultant Nancy Spangler.

Spangler facilitated presentations where employers talked about their experiences with mental illness.

"People weren't aware their manager had struggled and gotten treatment," Spangler said.

Two months after her clients began addressing mental health and illness in the workplace, they noticed an increase in the number of employees who sought treatment, including psychotherapy and medication. Reducing the stigma of therapy was an unexpected extra result of the atmosphere of being open about mental health.

Great Company Culture Attracts More Employees and Retains Current Ones

Some of the most talented and potentially valuable employees in the world have a mental illness. If employers want to hire them before other companies do, a reputation for accepting mental health conditions can be invaluable.

There are many people who would forego a salary increase to work for a company guaranteed to accept their mental illness. This can be an advantage when competing for talent against companies with larger budgets.

Current employees are also more likely to stay with a company that addresses their mental health needs and creates an environment where they can openly discuss mental illness and therapy. It's a retention tactic more employers should try.

Less Stress and More Benefits to Bring Home

When people stress about their mental health problems at work, they bring that stress home. It then negatively impacts their life and relationships outside of work.

By creating an environment where people can openly discuss their mental health issues and treatment, we can reduce this stress. This will improve our lives outside of work and make friends and family grateful we are not unloading extra work stress on them.

Decreasing Social Isolation and Making People Feel More Included

Mental illness can make people feel isolated. They might not be seeing a therapist or know anyone who will understand or accept their illness. The loneliness can exacerbate illnesses such as depression.

Employers can prevent this isolation by encouraging employees with mental health issues to connect with other people who deal with similar issues. Creating an environment where people can discuss mental illness openly will negate this feeling of isolation.

"We all want to be part of a social group," said psychologist Lauren Callaghan, who is also an author of "Pulling the trigger." "Anything that threatens our social inclusion is a threat to our well-being."

Social inclusion at the workplace makes people happier, and mental illness should not stand in the way of that.

It's the Direction Our Society Needs to Move In

Only a few decades ago, it was rare for LGBT people to disclose their sexual orientation in the workplace. They worried it would get them fired or at least did not feel like the work environment encouraged them to be open.

Now it is somewhat common for LGBT people to be out in the workplace. There is less fear of mentioning their lifestyle or opposite-sex partners.

Mental illness may be different than sexual orientation, but the idea of having the freedom to be open about all aspects of who you are -- and to do so in all parts of your life -- is the same. It's time for everyone to have that freedom, and the path to it starts in the workplace.

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