The true cost of ignoring mental health in the workplace

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Some employees are stressed to death at work — literally. But the right benefits can help save lives.

A report gathered by the American Heart Association, and a coalition of over 40 CEOs from large companies — called the AHA CEO Roundtable — illustrated how mental health impacts employees’ physical health, and their employer’s bottom line. The report, “Mental Health: A Workforce in Crisis” said around 8,000 employees around the world die every year from medical conditions — like strokes and heart attacks — caused by high job demands.

“The biological and chemical factors that trigger mental health issues also could influence heart disease,” says Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association. “The report recommends that employers take a comprehensive approach in supporting employees’ mental health across the spectrum from overall well-being to managing mental health disorders.”

Mental health disorders affect 44 million American adults, according to a study published in Psychological Medicine — referenced in the report. The CEO Roundtable met with the American Heart Association to discuss the employers’ role in tackling this health issue. They agreed a comprehensive health plan and wellness benefits are an integral part of the solution.

“In order to have a healthy workforce, employers must look at health and wellness holistically – and that includes mental health,” says Steve Rusckowski, chairman, president and CEO of Quest Diagnostics, a New Jersey-based, Fortune 500 healthcare company.

Various conditions fall under the umbrella of mental health; a few of these include depression, anxiety and dependence on controlled substances like opioids and alcohol. Depression is one of the most common mental health concerns affected by workplace conditions, Brown said.

“Excessive or chronic stress is known to be associated with higher risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, because stress can affect health behaviors like smoking, physical inactivity, and overeating, which are risk factors for chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes,” Brown says.

It behooves employers to offer comprehensive benefit packages for the sake of attracting and retaining talent, but not providing them can cost companies dearly. A 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, referenced in the AHA report, estimates depression costs the U.S. economy $210 billion annually; employers bear 50% of that cost. Rusckowski says investing in mental health benefits can help mitigate these costs.

“When left unmanaged, mental illness is associated with lower productivity, workplace accidents that lead to workers’ compensation claims, and even violence,” Rusckowski says. “Employers have tremendous power to create an environment in which people feel safe to raise concerns and get the care and support they need.”

Companies represented in the CEO Roundtable offer benefits to foster good mental health within their own workforce. Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky said in the report that his company provides employee assistance during crisis situations, and digital training tools that “teach resiliency and self-stress management techniques.” Other companies, like Kaiser Permanente and Quest Diagnostics, also provide crisis outreach services to employees. Kaiser also provides meditation sessions to help employees cope with stress.

“Employers of any size can create a plan based on an assessment of employee needs, and then structure their programs to fit available resources,” says Kathy Gerwig, vice president of employee safety, health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente.

Once a company has mental health resources in place, the next challenge is getting employees to take advantage of them. Rusckowski says it’s important for employees to see upper management participate in programs; it encourages them to do the same. Gerwig recommends surveying employees on how they’d like to be approached about participating in programs. She also advises asking workers who are passionate about mental health to help with engagement.

“Recruit employees on a grassroots level who have a passion for workforce well-being and improving mental health,” Gerwig says. “It is also important to ask employees how they want to be engaged, and what barriers they face.”

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