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Depression & Mental Health Blog
March 30, 2016
SBMH
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How Can We Improve Mental Health in the Workplace?

Mental health problems don't just affect those who suffer from them. An analysis of the responses to a World Health Organization questionnaire found that people who have depression reported 27 lost days of work each year. Nine of those were due to sick days, while 18 reflected lost productivity.

Considering that eighteen percent of Americans aged 15 to 54 experienced symptoms of a mental illness in the previous month, that's a lot of sick days and lost productivity. The literature on mental illness in the workplace suggests that if more workers who needed treatment were able to get it, not only would the personal toll be reduced, but the financial cost to companies would also decrease.

Studies have found that when people with depression are able to get treatment, a reduction is seen in job-related injuries, sick days and employee turnover, while employee productivity and the number of hours worked are increased.

How Businesses Can Approach Mental Illness: Two Case Studies

The Partnership for Workplace Mental Health offers a number of case studies of employers who are working to address mental health issues in the workplace.

Case Study: Aetna

After reviewing their own data, insurance giant Aetna saw that people who suffer from depression have much higher medical costs, double the hospitalization rates, reduced work performance and lower productivity. They also found that those who had received treatment had improved outcomes, and so they made efforts to integrate behavioral and medical care and improved access to high-quality mental health care services for their own employees. As a result, the company saw "marked improvements" in mental and physical health measures, productivity and overall medical costs.

Case Study: American Airlines

American Airlines management learned several years ago that a large percentage of their health care costs were due to mental-nervous conditions, and they took a proactive and integrated approach to help employees with mental illness. This led to a dramatic decrease in mental health care claims, which are now below their disability plan administrator's average.

Why Some Companies Neglect Employee Mental Health

Workplace wellness programs are becoming standard across the nation, but these are largely focused on physical health. While mental health problems affect a large number of American employees, they're commonly hidden at work, largely due to the stigma of having a mental illness. Some employees are reluctant to seek treatment for fear that they'll lose their job, but the alternative is that poor mental health may put the employee's physical health—and his or her career—in jeopardy.

What Companies Can Do

The National Institute of Mental Health partnered with Harvard Medical School to conduct a trial for telephone screening and depression management. Over 300 workers with depression across 16 large companies were recruited to access psychotherapy over the phone and receive telephone-based depression care management, while members of a control group were referred to a clinician for treatment but didn't receive phone support. The phone support group reported a significantly improved mood, and their productivity went up, equivalent to 2.6 hours of work per week. While the telephone-based intervention cost between $100 and $400 per participating employee, the return on the investment per employee was $1,800 per year.

Some companies are turning to employee assistance programs, or EAPs, which offer personal counseling to employees facing any number of personal or mental health problems, while other companies are contracting with a particular mental health provider at a reduced rate to ensure employees are able to access affordable mental health care.

These and other cost-effective and innovative interventions can save companies money while improving the quality of life, job satisfaction and overall well-being of employees.