Workers' Mental Health Disorders Go Untreated

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Three out of four workers diagnosed with a mental health disorder in Western Europe, Australia and the United States might forgo treatment out of fear of job loss, yet their conditions can still contribute to lost productivity at work, a recently published report found.

Research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) titled Sick on the Job? Myths and Realities about Mental Health at Work published in December 2011 found that one in five workers—in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands,

Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States—suffers from mental illness, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder and depression.

“The challenges [of mental illness] are enormous to society because of the high cost for both individuals and employees,” said Shruti Singh, an OECD economist based in Paris and co-author of the report. “People suffering from mental health disorders are also having trouble finding and holding onto jobs.”

The report found that:

  • Workers with mental illness are absent more frequently than those without such conditions.
  • Between 30 percent and 50 percent of all new disability benefit claims in OECD countries, including the United States, are attributed to mental illness.
  • People with a mental disorder are two to three times more likely to be unemployed as those without such disorders.

Another phenomenon costing companies money and productivity, Singh explained, is “presenteeism”—a term used to describe those times when employees are at work but are not engaged fully in work activities because of illness, preoccupied thoughts or other ailments. “Employees are often unaware that they might be performing at a very low level, and this affects the bottom line of a company,” Singh added.

Ingrid Ozols, managing director of Mental Health at Work in Australia, agreed with the OECD’s findings and said the trends cited in the report are evident in the Australian workplace.

“Stress is costing Australia’s economy billions of dollars in lost productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism, medical costs and work cover claims,” she wrote via e-mail to SHRM Online.

In Australia, work cover claims are filed by workers in cases where accidents occur on the job.

Job stress is costly in the United States as well, with an annual price tag of more than $300 billion, according to the New York-based American Institute of Stress. U.S. businesses attribute the cost to increased absenteeism, employee turnover, diminished productivity and medical, legal and insurance expenses, as well as workers’ compensation payments.

Since the beginning of the recession, “U.S. companies are cutting back and are re-examining what they can cover financially, including health care benefits,” Susanne Bruyère, Ph.D., director of Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute, told SHRM Online.

Job Insecurity

According to the OECD report, increasing job losses and pressure occurring in workplaces in 2012 could drive a rise in mental health problems later in the 2010s. Since 2000, workers exposed to work-related stress have increased across countries in the OECD, including Australia, the United States and several in Europe.

In Australia, Ozols explained, people with mental health problems are afraid of disclosing their condition during job interviews because they fear discrimination and rejection.

Employers in the United States cannot, by law, single out those with a mental illness, Bruyère added, even though health conditions of some employees might have been brought on by the stresses of the economic downturn.

“Job security—or lack thereof—can affect your mental health,” Singh said. “High unemployment rates, especially [during and after the recession], have made it difficult to find a job. “In Europe, job insecurity has risen quite a bit with the onset of the European economic crisis.”

However, Singh noted that there is no evidence in the OECD report about the recession having an impact on hiring and retaining those who have mental illness.

Societal Stigma

The OECD report addressed the stigma attached to mental illness in organizations worldwide.

“We now may be more aware of mental illness, like depression, but most employers are slow to change behaviors, [such as knowing] how to treat people with a mental illness. The stigma is still there,” Ozols said.

To combat this, governments in the Nordic countries and the United Kingdom are raising awareness about mental health issues through media campaigns, Singh explained.

In Norway, then-Prime Minister Kjell Bondevik revealed in a speech in 1998 that he had depression, becoming the highest-ranking world leader to disclose he had a mental illness while in office.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, telecommunications company BT is a champion regarding mental health issues. According to the Department of Work and Pensions, BT recruiting managers are told not to focus on resume gaps. Additionally, once an offer of employment has been made to a prospective BT employee, job applicants are asked if they want any support to overcome obstacles related to a health condition or disability.

“However, in European countries, many institutions are unaware about mental health issues,” Singh added. “There is still a long way to go.”

Treatment Works

To help those with mental illness, a new approach is needed in the workplace, the OECD report concluded. Methods suggested by the OECD include: 

  • Providing decent working conditions to reduce stress and manage it better.
  • Monitoring sick leave behavior systematically.
  • Helping employers reduce workplace conflicts.
  • Avoiding unnecessary dismissal based on behaviors linked to mental health problems.

“In all workplaces, the role of the line manager is absolutely crucial [as the] one who supports the worker, gives adequate feedback and recognizes the work effort,” Singh said.

Cornell’s Bruyère suggested that human resource professionals should provide specialized training to educate their colleagues about mental illness.

Bruyère explained that diversity training, at the managerial and employee levels, will teach workers how to communicate with people with disabilities. Her views are in line with the OECD’s recommendations to provide training for individuals and managers.

Ozols added that HR professionals must not shy away from addressing mental illness in the workplace.

“HR needs to collaborate and communicate with workers with educational programs, while employees need to feel comfortable talking to their superiors if problems in their personal life are beginning to impact their work,” Ozols said. “We are humans, not robots. We may think we can leave our personal disguises at home; however, the cracks eventually do show up in our work.”

“Treatment works,” Singh concluded. “Giving treatment to those [with] mental illness is very important for those who want to obtain or stay in a job.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Newport News, Va.  To read the original article, please click here.