The prevalence of corporate wellness programs has become essentially ubiquitous. Competitive employers seek to retain top talent and drive overall productivity among healthy, happy employees by offering discounted gym memberships, a communal fridge stocked with vegetables, and — at least for hip startups — ping pong tables.
While these perks certainly help to reduce stress and burnout, they aren’t the full answer. What we rarely see are wellness strategies that address the impact of diagnosable mental health conditions at work such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. In fact, stress and burnout can often trigger these conditions.
Mental health conditions are extremely common. They affect every conference call, every meeting, and every team. About 20 percent of employees manage a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year, and about half of all employees will experience at least a temporary condition at some point in their lives. Despite being more widespread than heart disease, diabetes, and cancer combined, the serious issue of discussing and managing mental health symptoms at work remains highly stigmatized in business environments.
Changing the culture around workplace mental health so that both employees with conditions and their organizations can thrive is an imperative cultural shift, and the moment to make it happen is now.
Even your highest-performing employees are likely to have a mental health condition.
Despite the stigma of mental health diagnoses, the same conditions that can create occasional challenges can also drive success. For example, people with anxiety may be more driven to excellence. Those with bipolar disorder can be highly creative and have periods of tremendous productivity. Additionally, those with mental health conditions tend to have greater empathy for others' struggles, which can translate to strong management skills.
Your employees with mental health conditions are likely hiding it.
Even though mental health conditions may affect your own staff, you might not realize it because of the lengths they go to in order to "cover" their symptoms. According to a RAND study, more than two-thirds of employees hide their conditions from their coworkers. A Deloitte UK study found that 95 percent of people who have taken time off due to stress gave another reason, such as a headache or stomach issue. Covering is an added burden for already struggling employees, one sometimes greater than the condition itself. It diminishes an employee's sense of personal opportunity and his or her commitment to an organization, leading to decreased engagement.
Most of them aren’t getting treated, which is hurting them and losing you money.
Eight out of 10 workers with a mental health condition report that shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment, that can typically be very effective. In addition, regular therapy appointments are difficult to keep when employees feel they can't explain why they need time out of the office, often on a weekly basis.
If you made strategic shifts, you’d reduce turnover and improve productivity.
By some estimates, approximately $17 billion is lost in productivity annually when organizations fail to support employees with mental health conditions. It manifests in leaves of absence, as well as in employee absenteeism and "presenteeism" (going to work without being productive). Acknowledgement of and support for mental health generates cost savings and higher morale, which can make your organization a more inclusive and desirable place to work.
Despite these benefits, very few employers have a culture of openness around mental health or supports in place to accommodate people's needs. Leaves of absence and employee assistance programs are typically insufficient Band-Aid solutions that don't lead to positive culture change. Worse, they can force struggling employees further into the shadows.
Instead, leaders can support mental health by making sincere efforts to reduce the stigma. For example, leaders and managers can share their own experiences, or those of close family members or friends, to create transparency and acceptance. This can make it easier for employees to ask for help if they need it, taking some of the fear out of disclosure. In addition, organizations can train managers to recognize the signs of mental health conditions and support struggling employees. Lastly, employers can make it easy for staff to keep therapy appointments and encourage a healthy work-life balance despite pressing priorities and resource constraints. Both your employees and your budget will thank you.
Portions of this article originally appeared in the Bridgespan Group’s LeadersMatter publication.
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