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Mental Illness in the Workplace
An estimated 10 percent of the working population has a diagnosable mental illness. That’s right; there’s a one-in-ten chance that the person sitting next to you in your office has a mental illness. It could be bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, or one of a myriad of others. You may not think about the mentally ill working, but many of us do and many of us are quite successful at it.
However, there are two kinds of people with a mental illness in the workplace: Those with well-controlled mental illness and those with untreated or mistreated mental illness. Not surprisingly, just like with any other medical condition, untreated or mistreated mental illness is a problem.
Untreated Mental Illness in the Workplace
Mental illness is a huge reason that people take sick days. In 2001, American employees took 8.8 million sick days due to untreated or mistreated depression and workers who must take time off because of stress, anxiety, or a related disorder are off the job for about 21 days.
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, depression leads to $23 billion in lost workdays every year.
So if mental illness is taking this type of toll at work, why aren’t more people getting treated?
Feelings on Mental Illness in the Workplace
The answer to that one is simple: stigma.
People in the workplace don’t want to be seen as lesser-than or weaker-than their mentally-well counterparts. They don’t want to be passed over for promotion and be denied opportunities because of an incorrect public perception. Despite the fact that no one would blame an individual, or think them deficient, because of a broken leg or diabetes, people do think that of people with a mental illness, every day.
And this doesn’t even account for the fact that mental health insurance coverage is typically not on par with other types of medical coverage—making getting help for a mental illness prohibitively expensive.
The Cost of Mental Health Coverage
And the sin of it is that is the “taint” of mental illness that keeps us from treating it properly and like any other illness. It was calculated that it would only cost employers $1.32 per enrollee per month to put mental health coverage on par with other medical coverage.
And I believe the reason why this money isn’t spent has nothing to do with dollars and cents and everything to do with the stigma of mental illness.
Accommodating Mental Illness in the Workplace
In addition to healthcare parity, there are other things that can be done to accommodate mental illness in the workplace. Just as you would provide ramp access to a building for someone in a wheelchair, you might consider some of these changes in other to help people with other challenges:
- Flexible work times: simply allowing a start time that is one hour later can make a big difference to someone who may experience trouble in the mornings due to illness or medication side effects
- Work-at-home options: this can be helpful for any employee
- An adjusted schedule if returning to work from a leave of absence: it’s prudent to allow a returning employee to increase their time at work gradually to allow for confidence-building both by the employee and the employer that the employee is truly ready to resume their position
- Reducing stress in the workplace: stress in and of itself induces mental health issues and increases absences of mentally well employees (20 percent of Canadian workers experience a stress related illness every year), not to mention those with an existing mental illness so stress reduction can actually increase productivity for all
- Creating a mental illness awareness campaign: create a campaign that encourages real education about mental illness and encourages people to seek appropriate treatment (A review of 73 published studies of worksite health promotion programs shows an average savings of $3.50 for every dollar spent, in terms of reduced absenteeism and healthcare costs)
- Written information provided in addition to verbal: some people with a mental illness may find remembering verbal information challenging and simply providing them written instructions can increase the effectiveness
Most of these options are inexpensive and some cost nothing at all. Because a sick employee doesn’t have to cost an employer more money if understanding and reasonable accommodations are met. People with a mental illness can be every bit as effective and successful as any other employee and writing them off is ultimately to the loss of the company.