Why Employers Need to Talk About Mental Illness in the Workplace

Agovino, T. (2019, August) Mental Illness and the Workplace. Retrieved from

Many companies are striving to increase awareness about mental illness and encourage more employees to seek treatment. Suicide rates nationally are climbing, workers’ stress and depression levels are rising, and addiction—especially to opioids—continues to bedevil employers. Such conditions are driving up health care costs at double the rate of illnesses overall, according to Aetna Behavioral Health.  

Starting workplace conversations about behavioral health is challenging. Such conditions are often seen as a personal failing rather than a medical condition. The mental illness discussion is also impacted by employee demographics. Millennial and Generation Z employees grew up in an era when children and teens were regularly diagnosed and medicated for conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and therefore don’t have the same negative associations with mental illness as their older counterparts. In fact, 62 percent of Millennials say they’re comfortable discussing their mental health issues, almost twice as many as the 32 percent of Baby Boomers who expressed such ease, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

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Increasing Costs, Suicide Rates and Stress Drive Change

Mental health expenses jumped by more than 10 percent annually over five years, compared with an annual increase of 5 percent for other medical costs, according to a study conducted by Aetna Behavioral Health. Treating depression alone costs $110 billion annually, and half of that cost is shouldered by employers. Companies spent $2.6 billion on opioid addiction in 2016—an eightfold increase since 2004, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported last year.   Meanwhile, more people are taking their own lives. Suicide rates rose 33 percent, to 14 per 100,000 people up from 10.5 per 100,000 people, from 1999 through 2017, the last year for which figures were available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One reason: Many younger workers are stressed, depressed or anxious. In fact, the proportion of workers with symptoms of depression rose 18 percent from 2014 to 2018.

Among members of Generation Z and Millennials, depression symptoms increased at an even faster rate, jumping 39 percent and 24 percent, respectively, according to New York City-based technology company Happify Health. Most people’s reluctance to discuss mental illness belies the diseases’ prevalence. Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness every year, the APA reports.  

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Employees Still Reluctant to Divulge Problems  

A majority of employees — 68 percent — worry that reaching out about a mental health issue could negatively impact their job security, according to a 2019 study by Businessolver, a West Des Moines, Iowa-based health benefits administrator.  Although 50 percent of employees overall (and 60 percent of Millennial employees) reported having had a mental health lapse, only one-third of those employees reached out to their employer.

Covered by the Law  

Mental health conditions are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That means employers must make reasonable accommodations for workers with such disorders to perform their responsibilities. However, employees must be willing to divulge their need for modifications. Myriad laws protect medical privacy, and experts say individuals don’t have to provide extensive details about their conditions. Companies are training their employees to be sensitive to signs of mental illness, such as noticing changes in someone’s behavior. If a typically stellar employee’s performance declines, supervisors might reach out to the individual to discuss the shift and remind the person of services provided by the company, such as an employee assistance program (EAP).  


Solutions for Employers  

Work with your Centricity HR Partner to develop strategies for addressing mental health at your company. Some potential actions include:

  • Make mental health self-assessment tools available to all employees.
  • Offer free or subsidized clinical screenings for depression from a qualified mental health professional, followed by directed feedback and clinical referral when appropriate.
  • Provide free or subsidized lifestyle coaching, counseling, or self-management programs.
  • Distribute materials, such as brochures, fliers, and videos, to all employees about the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and opportunities for treatment.

For additional assistance with this topic, please reach out to the Centricity HR Team

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