What You Need to Know About Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

No one parks their mental health issues at the door of the workplace. You or your coworkers might suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or many other mental health disorders and still go to work every day. In other cases, the workplace can actually contribute to or cause mental health problems.

There is good evidence that when workers receive appropriate treatment for mental health issues, then job-related accidents, sick days, and employee turnover decrease. However, treatment may be difficult or uncomfortable to request. In addition, it may take time for that treatment to be successful, especially in the initial phases and for those who have suffered these conditions for many years.

Whether you’re an employee or employer, you’ll have some basic knowledge about mental health issues and what you can do after you finish this article.

What You Need to Know About Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

The Data on Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

According to a 2010 study from the US National Comorbidity Survey, eighteen percent of employed Americans aged fifteen to 54 reported they had experienced symptoms of a mental health disorder in the previous month. Fit For Work reports that nearly half of all long term illness is due to mental health issues.

The Harvard Health Newsletter reports a study of more than 34,000 employees at ten companies showed depression was the most costly of all health conditions. Obesity, arthritis, and back and neck pain followed depression, with anxiety coming in fifth. The study looked at medical and pharmacy costs, as well as absenteeism and lost productivity. Indirect costs such as lost productivity typically exceed direct costs.

Common Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

Depression: Depression is estimated to affect about six percent of employees in a given year. Typical symptoms in the workplace include physical complaints such as pain, restlessness, nervousness, and irritability. Depressed employees often complain of fatigue, may suffer from insomnia, and may seem passive, withdrawn, or aimless. Only half of those who are depressed receive treatment and less than half of that group receives adequate treatment.

Bipolar Disorder: About one percent of American employees suffer from bipolar disorder, characterized by manic “highs” and depressive “lows.” Mania may be more obvious, but the depressive stage probably has more of an impact on performance. About two-thirds of employees with bipolar disorder receive treatment, but adequacy of treatment is highly variable.

What You Need to Know About Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

Anxiety Disorders: Anxiety affects an estimated six percent of the population. This group is more likely to seek care for medical issues related to the anxiety, such as sleep disturbances, heart trouble, or high blood pressure. About one in three individuals with anxiety receives treatment.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Although it is relatively well known as a condition in children, adults may also have ADHD and in many cases have never been diagnosed or treated. ADHD can affect a person’s ability to organize work, meet deadlines, follow instructions, and build relationships with coworkers. Compared to those with other mental health issues, those with ADHD are much more likely to earn lower wages, be disciplined for behavior, or be terminated from a job. Treatment rates among employees with ADHD are especially low. In the United States, only thirteen percent of workers with ADHD reported being treated in the preceding twelve months.

Excessive Stress: Stress that builds without relief can result in conditions such as depression and anxiety. Those who are stressed often become increasingly emotional, or may withdraw and become demotivated. Nervousness, confusion, and a feeling of disappointment may occur, along with changes in eating and sleeping patterns. Stress can lead to such severe anxiety that panic attacks occur.

What Employers Need to Know

Dealing with an employee who has a mental health issue can be a delicate situation and a matter of treading a fine line. The employee may not disclose his or her issue, and invading an individual’s privacy should only occur when there is a very good reason. However, employers are also charged with ensuring all of their employees have a safe place to work. When an employee demonstrates disruptive or dangerous behavior, the employer has an obligation to act.

What You Need to Know About Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

Sometimes, the workplace is what causes the mental health issues. Workplace bullying can result in depression and anxiety. Sexual harassment may also cause mental health problems. It should go without saying that as an organization, you should never tolerate or condone workplace bullying or sexual harassment.

Aside from the mental health issues, productivity issues, and the impact on the individual being bullied or harassed, these activities leave you vulnerable to lawsuits. You should have a policy in place that outlines acceptable behavior — a “code of conduct.” This should be applied at all levels. If you have an employee assistance program, managers should make recommendations for referrals in cases where an employee’s behavior is a concern, whether there is a suspicion of mental illness or not.

Employers can promote employee mental health in a number of ways:

  • An employee fitness program or office gym can support mental health by promoting both exercise and subsequently better sleep (many mental health problems cause sleep disturbances).
  • Offer high-quality food choices in vending machines or the employee cafeteria rather than sugar-laden, refined flour snacks.
  • Enforce the code of conduct to prevent bullying or harassment.
  • Classes in meditation or yoga can promote relaxation and reduce stress. Provide a meditation room or space such as a garden, and encourage employees to use these areas on breaks.
  • Let employees know that it’s just as appropriate for people to use sick time for mental health issues as for physical health issues.
  • Encourage workers to take vacations on a regular basis.

Mental Health Issues and the Individual

For the individual who struggles with a mental health issue, there is help available. Counseling and support groups are found in almost all communities, although psychiatrists are much less common, especially in rural areas. However, many primary care doctors will also prescribe medications for mental health issues.

A wide variety of medications are available today for conditions such as depression, ADHD, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Insurance plans are also much more likely to cover treatment for mental illness than was once the case. Seek treatment when appropriate. If you are concerned about a coworker, talk to his or her supervisor. But keep your focus on the behavior causing the concern and don’t jump to conclusions — diagnosing a mental illness is a job for a medical professional.

Your physical health and mental health are intertwined. One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to practice good health habits:

  • Inadequate sleep affects the neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain. Practice good sleep hygiene by maintaining regular bedtimes, minimizing caffeine later in the day, turning off the electronics two hours before bedtime, and sleeping in a cool, dark room.
  • Regular exercise also promotes better sleep and can help reduce anxiety and depression.
  • Nutrition is also important — your brain needs adequate protein to make those neurotransmitters. Fresh fruits and vegetables provide important vitamins, chemicals, and antioxidants, as well.

Whether you are an employer or an employee, it’s important to treat everyone with respect and kindness. At the same time, it’s important to be aware that mental health issues can cause problematic behaviors and take appropriate steps if necessary.

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Becca Borawski Jenkins
Becca is a bit like a cat — she’s gone through a few “lives” to get to her current one (with which she’s quite pleased). She earned her MFA in Cinema-Television Production at USC’s famed film school, and her first career was as a music editor (if you’ve watched Scrubs, you’ve likely heard her work).

Becca found her way to career number two through martial arts. She began training in BJJ and muay Thai and started working with professional MMA fighters, building websites, working on fight promotions, and producing videos.

As a competitor in BJJ herself, Becca wanted to get stronger and fitter. In 2005, she became a student at CrossFit Los Angeles where she met WLC co-founders Andy Petranek and Michael Stanwyck. In only a couple years, she became CrossFit Level III Certified, left her entertainment career, and dedicated herself full time to coaching, serving as the Program Director of CFLA and founder of the CFLA CrossFit Kids program.

After seven years as a music editor and then eight years as fitness instructor, Becca segued to her current career — full-time editor and writer. She and her husband are full-time RVers and have a first-hand comprehension of the pros and cons of remote work.