Mental health takes its toll as employers seek answers

Sponsored by

Companies that use performance management software to monitor and increase workforce productivity may be pushing more workers over the edge, mental health experts warn.

Employees already feel like they’re on pins and needles when every minute of their workday is tracked and evaluated — especially when some of those workers are fighting their own internal battles. Out of 1,850 working adults in the U.S., 42% said they’ve come to work with suicidal feelings, according to a 2019 mental health report by Unum — a Fortune 500 benefits company.

“It’s alarming that many people are coming to work thinking about suicide,” said Michelle Jackson, assistant vice president at Unum, during a a recent webinar hosted by the Disability Management Employer Coalition. “While mental health is becoming more talked about, there still seems to be a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure we address the root causes.”

In a study of Unum’s customers, behavioral health claim submissions increased 10% every year since 2015, with anxiety and depression making up the vast majority of claims. Dr. David Goldsmith, an Unum medical consultant, said that finding is not surprising considering the modern work culture.

Mental Health 3.18.19.png

“The bond between employer and employee doesn’t feel like family anymore; employees feel like replaceable parts,” Goldsmith said during the webinar. “We’re driven by metrics, and we feel threatened [in our jobs.]”

Goldsmith said Corporate America’s reliance on performance tracking is exasperating for many workers, particularly those with existing mental illnesses. The majority of Unum’s survey respondents with an existing mental health condition said work stress is the most common trigger of symptom flare ups. Those without a mental illness said health and finances impact mental health the most. It’s no coincidence that these two things are completely dependent on having a job, Goldsmith said.

“It’s lack of control and predictability over health and finances that’s the threat,” Goldsmith said. “It doesn’t get better when we constantly feel like our job is on the line; we’re in constant fight or flight mode.”

Low performing employees may not be at fault; employers need to recognize that mental illnesses can seriously impact employee productivity, Goldsmith said. Missing deadlines, tardiness and low engagement with co-workers are all signs someone may be suffering from depression.

“If they’re not performing as they have before, and there’s a broader impact to the overall team, it’s a good sign there’s more going on,” Jackson said.

In addition to the alarming number of workers contemplating suicide in the office, a report by the American Heart Association said work stress puts employees at high risk of suffering from a heart attack or stroke. Jackson said employers need to seriously consider implementing wellness programs centered on mental health and physical fitness to help workers cope with office stress.

“You need to ask yourselves if you are providing a secure environment where people can share what they’re dealing with and have the support they need,” Jackson said.

Developing an empathetic work culture will also go a long way, they said.

“After taking leave, it helps hearing from a supervisor or co-worker, ‘I’m glad you’re back. Is there anything I can do for you?’” Goldsmith said. “It’s not intrusive, it’s supportive.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.