Mental Health in the Workplace: It Pays to be Fully Fit

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It would pay employers to be more proactive towards ensuring mental and emotional health in the workplace. This would improve the fiscal bottom line, as well as the general health and productivity of the whole workforce.

Corporations large and small have known for some time that healthy employees make better workers than unhealthy employees do. And in their efforts to boost productivity, minimize absenteeism, and improve overall job performance, many employers in recent years have taken a proactive approach to fostering healthiness in their employees by providing them with access to exercise rooms, affording them wellness breaks, offering them healthy meal choices in the commissary, and even sometimes providing them with fitness coaching. But, while employers have also known the importance of mental fitness to overall job satisfaction and performance, many have been reluctant to implement proactive plans for ensuring their employees’ mental health.

Companies began including mental health care in their benefit packages a long time ago. But, by and large, the mental health services offered under those plans followed a ‘reactive’ as opposed to proactive model. For example, a supervisor might take note of an individual’s lagging job performance since experiencing a major life stressor such as a divorce or the loss of a family member. The supervisor might then suggest the employee procure a mental health evaluation and possible treatment through the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), in lieu of taking some type of disciplinary action. But few companies have been proactive in promoting and maintaining their employees’ mental health (at least not as proactive as they have recently become in encouraging their employees’ physical fitness). Proactive measures geared toward mental and emotional wellness could include such services as regular mental health screenings, anxiety and stress management training, life and coping skills training, and regularly scheduled maintenance or follow-up visits for an individual already diagnosed with and/or treated for a mental condition. A few of the more forward-looking companies have been, of late, employing this more proactive approach to mental health, and in the process they are finding that the effort not only produces benefits to the overall working environment, but also pays off on the company’s fiscal bottom line.

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A Canadian study determined that mental health problems linked to being absent from a job, or being present but unproductive or under-productive on the job (commonly called “presenteeism”), cost businesses up to 6 billion dollars annually (source: The Life and Economic Impact of Major Mental Illnesses in Canada: 2011 to 2041, a 2011 study conducted by RiskAnalytica for the Mental Health Commission of Canada). Similar studies in the US have also attested to the high cost of undetected and untreated serious mental illness in the workplace (e.g., Assessing the Economic Costs of Serious Mental Illness). All in all, the available research suggests that poor mental health ends up costing both companies and taxpayers lots of money. Still, companies have generally not been very proactive about addressing the issue. Some of their hesitancy might stem from concerns that the degree of investment necessary for good proactive mental health care might not necessarily be all that cost effective, at least in the near term. But, as mounting research data consistently affirm the benefits of proactive mental health care, more companies are slowly getting on board with early screening and intervention programs.

Most of the studies I’ve seen focus on the relationship between job performance and the kinds of clinical conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, trauma-related stress disorders, attention-deficit disorder, etc.) that mental health professionals typically diagnose on Axis I of their multiaxial diagnostic scheme. But, as I mention in my book Character Disturbance, we live in an age where personality disorders and character impairments (which are typically diagnosed on Axis II) have become more prevalent. Individuals who have personalities that are abrasive, intrusive, or otherwise make it hard to form and maintain relationships can contribute to a milieu in the workplace that not only fosters clinical conditions such as depression and anxiety, but also can make the general working atmosphere so toxic that otherwise well-motivated co-workers become disgruntled and uncharacteristically poor producers. And because few studies have included personality disturbances in their list of conditions impacting productivity and job satisfaction, one could rightfully draw the conclusion that the present data on the cost to business of mental illness probably underestimate the true cost.

One fairly recent study conducted for the World Health Organization in Australia actually did include personality disorders in the group of mental illnesses it examined for their effect on work productivity. As you might expect, the study affirmed the role that impaired mental health plays in work cutbacks. But surprisingly, the study recommended specifically targeting anxiety disorders and mood disorders for treatment, and did not examine the relationship between personality dysfunction and the proneness to depression, anxiety or other Axis I conditions. The study rightfully concluded, as have many other studies, that much more research needs to be done in this area. And hopefully, some of that research will take a better look at the role personality impairments play in overall workplace health, and at what types of proactive interventions can help minimize the costs associated with such impairments.

The day appears to be approaching when both the general public and employers recognize the equal importance of mental and physical health to job performance and the quality of working life. As employers become increasingly conscious of the value of healthy working environments, perhaps more of them will adopt more proactive strategies — not only to maintain their employees’ physical health, but also to ensure their mental and emotional well-being. As anyone who has worked in such an environment can testify, spending the day with co-workers who are irritable as a result of depression, task-avoidant as a result of anxiety, or impossible to deal with as a result of personality impairment can really make you ill. That’s why sound proactive mental health wellness programming seems like the perfect prescription for companies seeking to improve employee morale, productivity, and, of course, the fiscal bottom line.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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