Your workplace wellness plan will go in the right direction if you consider the mental health and wellness of your employees as well as their physical health needs. When we do the right thing in this regard, employees will have better lives, and the company will benefit.
Positive mental health is a state of well being in which we realize our own potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and are able to make a contribution to others. A plan to promote positive mental health in the workplace includes a variety of supports considering optimal physical and mental health as well as physical and mental illness.
Mental health and physical health are interconnected and can be viewed on a continuum from optimal health to illness. Our mental health is impacted by our physical health and vice versa. For example, unmanaged stress, anxiety and depression lead to health concerns such as high blood pressure and ulcers. Serious health issues and mental health issues can occur together. Studies have linked depression to heart attacks, and panic disorders to coronary artery disease. Individuals with depression are twice as likely to develop coronary artery disease, twice as likely to have a stroke, and more than four times as likely to die within six months from a cardiac event.
The World Health Organization suggests that by the year 2020, depression will constitute the second-largest cause of disease burden worldwide, and untreated depression is costly. Individuals with untreated depression consume two to four times the health care resources of other enrollees. Mental illness accounts for up to 7 percent of all health care claims. Untreated mental illness results in higher medical claims, lowered productivity, more workplace tension and poorer employee satisfaction and engagement. Further costs occur when untreated depression contributes to alcoholism or drug abuse or when an employee has a family member with depression. This can disrupt working hours, lead to absenteeism, affect concentration, decrease morale and disrupt productivity.
The research connecting mental health concerns to the bottom line is clear. A comprehensive plan to promote mental health will include a variety of interventions. Areas of focus can include strategies to insure access to care for mental health problems, promote awareness and skill-building for health issues across the continuum, facilitate participation in care when it is needed, and promote a supportive culture in the organization.
Most importantly, employees need access to mental health care resources. Companies should carefully review employee needs and resources, such as those available through the company’s insurance plans. Many companies have employee assistance programs that provide a wide variety of mental health and wellness services in the workplace, including education, counseling and referral to address lifestyle concerns and behavioral health illness.
Positive mental health is more than just the absence of mental illness, so workplace plans have provisions for treatment when illness occurs and strategies to encourage healthy lifestyle behaviors over unhealthy ones. And, because mental health and physical health are interconnected, classes and group sessions on positive health behaviors apply to physical and mental health alike – information on eating sensibly, getting regular exercise and adequate sleep, avoiding smoking, adhering to medical therapies, building resilience, and having a positive outlook. Health screens for stress, depression or alcohol and drug misuse may be provided by formal health risk appraisals or through popular online resources. Education on personal and mental health issues, including information on myths about mental health, helps to reduce stigma that keeps people from seeking help.
Another area of focus involves the organization’s culture for a supportive management style in day-to-day operations. This may include provisions to help employees with work-life balance or policies that insure support for employees who seek treatment. This often involves training for managers and front-line supervisors on mental health in the workplace, steps to identify performance problems that may indicate employee distress, how to intervene effectively, how to communicate with employees, and support of return to work when leave is needed. It may also include training for all employees on what constitutes positive mental health and how all of us are impacted by our views of mental health and the way we are treated at work.
To do the right thing and go in the right direction, treat mental health problems with the same urgency and consideration as physical health problems. Education is the key. Problems with mental health are treatable, and costs are reduced with appropriate care. Consider partnerships with experts and resources within your community to identify ways to dispel myths and address stigma. Begin with a focus on common mental health problems (such as stress, depression and substance abuse), signs of distress, and practical tools for employees and managers to get help for themselves and others. Use regularly repeated communications that keep positive mental health and healthy lifestyles in the mainstream.