Why Global Employers Should Promote Mental Health
By Alexandra Caddick, Senior Associate, HR Advisory
Employers have long realized the benefits of helping workers stay physically healthy, but many have been reluctant to venture into the less understood, often stigmatized realm of mental health issues.
Today, that attitude is starting to change as companies realize the extent of the problem and the toll it takes on productivity and business continuity. A recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that depression and anxiety (the most common psychological problems) cost the global economy a staggering $1 trillion per year. If organizations take effective actions to promote mental health in the workplace, they can alleviate suffering and improve operations in the process, the study said.
A Worldwide Productivity Drain
Nearly half the population is affected by mental illness at some point in their lives, according to WHO. Some 300 million suffer from depression, often with bouts of anxiety. Work-related stress can exacerbate these symptoms, leading to absences and poor performance that impede companies from achieving their goals.
Study after study shows that across widely disparate cultures, mental health problems have similar debilitating effects. Here are a few examples.
European Union: A European Commission report found depression to be the most disabling problem, while anxiety was the most common. Women have higher rates of depression and anxiety than men, who are more likely to experience antisocial disorders and engage in substance abuse, the study said. At least two in five workers are living with a mental health problem at any given time.
Though few people suffer from severe conditions like schizophrenia, even minor levels of depression are associated with productivity losses, the study found. Sick leave and early retirement due to mental health problems have increased in Europe over the past few decades. Mental problems are also correlated with physical conditions, including cardiovascular problems and diabetes.
When employees take frequent leave or retire early, managers have to spend more on training and recruitment. In the meantime, other workers have to fill in, which could create further mental health issues resulting from workplace stress. The cost to employers is 240 billion euros ($272 billion) per year, including 136 billion euros for reduced productivity and including absenteeism and 104 billion euros for medical treatment.
European countries that have done their own studies have found similar results.
UK: In a recent study of more than 44,000 employees by mental health organization Mind, 48 percent said they have experienced a mental health problem in their current job. Only half had spoken to their employer about it, revealing a lingering stigma surrounding psychological illness. A 2010 study by the Centre for Mental Health said that losses due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety cost employers 105 billion pounds ($136 billion) a year.
Spain: Workplace stress can cause mental health problems, as well as exacerbating them for those with an existing condition. A 2010 workers’ union study in Spain (cited in the EU Commission report) estimated that up to 27 percent of mental disorders in the country could be attributed to working conditions and cost employers between 150 million euros and 372 million euros ($170 million to $422 million) a year. Nearly 18,000 deaths in 2010 were related to mental health problems.
France and Germany: A similar study in France found that just one aspect of workplace stress costs employers at least two to three billion euros, including healthcare expenditures, absenteeism, retirement and premature deaths. In Germany, mental-health-related job strain costs employers 29.2 billion euros ($33 billion) annually, another study found.
Sweden: For both men and women, mental health issues are on the rise and now the most common cause of illness-related absences, one study found.
China: In a study by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, nearly 35 percent of Chinese workers reported poor mental health. Problems were greatest among workers with low-status jobs.
Singapore: A recent government study paints a bleak picture of workplace life, finding the mental wellbeing of working adults to be 13 percent lower than that of the general population. Another survey found that one in six working adults experiences a high level of stress, compared to one in 10 for non-working adults.
Australia: A PwC report found that mental health issues cost employers $11 billion per year, including $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in diminished performance, and $14 6 million in compensation claims.
Addressing the Problem
Organizations that promote mental health in the workplace receive a return on their investment, the European Commission report said. One study found that companies gain up to 13.62 euros for every euro of expenditure. A German study found that mental health promotion reduced absenteeism rates, lowering costs by 12 to 36 percent. A UK study said that a 1,000-worker company could save $473,000 annually by addressing stress and mental health issues.
So what do successful programs look like? They are embraced by senior leaders, which reduces stigma. They emphasize early interventions and make sure mental health problems are covered by insurance. Some offer employee assistance programs with confidential help lines available 24/7. Health risk screening, individual help and a supportive workplace culture help prevent problems from developing into a stressful and productivity-sapping crisis.
As individual employers address mental health problems, some countries have adopted broader initiatives to promote mental health. The UK has launched a Mental Health at Work project to support businesses in taking the first practical steps to promote positive mental health in the workplace. Canada has created Healthy Minds@Work, a network of resources to support employer efforts to address psychological health and safety. Singapore is also launching an initiative to help employers improve mental health in the workplace.
State support is helpful where it exists, but in most countries, it’s up to companies to take the first steps toward improving the mental health on the job. Developing a strong support system for employees experiencing mental health issues and promoting a positive psychological environment will create a stronger, happier and more productive workforce that ultimately improves the bottom line.