A recent study finds more than 60 percent of employers saying the stigma surrounding < mental-health > issues in the workplace has either stayed the same or increased in the past two years. What can HR do to help reverse this troubling trend?
By Mark McGraw
The findings from the Disability Management Employer Coalition's 2014 Behavioral Risk Survey paint an interesting-and somewhat incongruous-picture.
On one hand, you have numbers that suggest employers are making great strides in recognizing the signs of mental illness and its impact on the workplace, and are doing more to help employees with behavioral health problems.
On the other hand are figures indicating that not only are some companies struggling to make progress on this front, they may be taking steps in the wrong direction.
Between July and August of last year, the DMEC posed 42 online questions to 314 employers of various sizes, in an effort to determine behavioral health trends in the workplace. For example, respondents were asked if upper management's opinion regarding the need to review behavioral health issues in the workplace has changed over the past two years. (The DMEC has conducted its behavioral risk study on a biennial basis since 2006.)
Overall, 37 percent of those polled said that management "has become more open" about assessing behavioral health issues in that time. In 2012, 25 percent of respondents said the same.
In addition, 33 percent of survey participants said their organizations screen employees for underlying psychological or psychosocial issues, which marks a slight, 3 percent increase from 2012.
Respondents were also asked what level of, or change in, stigma associated with "having a psychological/psychiatric problem" they have witnessed in the workplace in the past two years.
The responses to that query weren't quite as encouraging. While 25 percent of respondents said they thought the stigma decreased in that time, 41 percent said it remained the same.
And, another 24 percent said they've seen the stigma around behavioral health issues in the workplace actually increase in the past two years. As if that figure isn't troubling enough on its own, consider that just 7.6 percent of those surveyed by DMEC in 2012 said the same.
To some extent, this rise may be a reflection of views on mental illness in society at large, says Terri Rhodes, executive director of the DMEC, a San Diego-based non-profit organization providing educational resources to employers in the areas of disability, absence, health and productivity.
For some, that view may have been shaped in recent years by a spate of high-profile, horrific acts committed by individuals affected by severe behavioral problems-the Sandy Hook Elementary and Pennsylvania state police shootings, for instance.
"We have a lot of media attention when there's a shooting or any kind of public violence, which is most often associated with some kind of mental illness," says Rhodes. "So, from the average person's perspective, maybe the stigma is more negative now than it was two years ago."
"When someone has, say, lost a child, there's certainly depression associated with that [experience], and it's usually obvious. People are sympathetic toward that, and are even sympathetic toward [someone dealing with] drug and alcohol abuse," says Rhodes.
"That stigma has lessened with education. But when it's anxiety, or a true mental illness like bipolar disorder, it doesn't seem as tangible, and it can be difficult to feel sympathy. So what may happen is people in the workforce-co-workers, supervisors, managers-skirt around the issue."
For that matter, an employee with a behavioral health problem may go to great lengths in an effort to shield it from colleagues, adds David Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the Washington-based American Psychological Association.
The workplace "is one place where people are still concerned about potential repercussions, such as being passed over for promotions, treated unfairly, seen as less competent, becoming the target of bullying, social exclusion or office gossip," says Ballard.
Expending "considerable effort" to keep < mental health > issues concealed can add to an employee's stress, he says, "making the challenges they face even more difficult, and preventing them from getting the support they need."
But it can't stop there, he says.
"Integrating behavioral health and emotional well-being into all of the organization's health and wellness practices is key," continues Ballard. "< Mental health > issues are more common than people think." (Roughly 26 percent of American adults age 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable < mental health > disorder in a given year, according to National Institute of < Mental Health > data.)
For HR leaders involved in company wellness initiatives, "it's important to make < mental health > a normal part of the wellness discussion," says Ballard. "HR can help by providing employees with clear information about available resources, such as employee assistance programs and how to access them, as well as educating them about < mental health > issues and debunking myths about mental illness."
"We only hear about this tiny-albeit very spectacular and tragic-fraction of events," says Plotnick, referring to occurrences such as the aforementioned shootings.
"We never see the fact that people with < mental health > conditions are all around us-our friends, family members, colleagues. And people can and do recover from even the most severe < mental-health > issues."
HR and benefits professionals should remind all employees of the < mental health > needs their health insurance plans cover, and should encourage workers to undergo < mental health > screenings and annual check-ups, "just like you would get a physical check-up each year."
"It costs employers money if employees are dealing with < mental health > problems. Not only can companies lose money through employees' absenteeism, but through presenteeism, if an employee is showing up and can't do the job they should be doing," says Plotnick.
"It behooves organizations to let employees know they want them to pay attention to their < mental health >, committing just as much to their < mental health as [they devote to] smoking cessation, weight management and all of these types of programs."
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