Mental Health Awareness in the Workplace


May is Mental Health Awareness Month and presents an important opportunity to bring some things to light. Our mental health is much different than our physical health. If you have something like diabetes or high cholesterol, there are clear paths to diagnosis, and there are straightforward forms of treatment. With mental health, however, there is a much larger gray area, and unfortunately, there is a much higher likelihood that warning signs will be ignored or dismissed.

Additionally, the prevalence of mental illness is higher than one might think. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1 in 5 people experienced a diagnosable mental health problem last year, and many others are at risk. When it comes to mental health, there are countless factors at play: genetics, past traumatic experiences, stress levels, etc. And seeing as how we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, our workplace environment also plays a large role in our mental health. Therefore, it is critical that employers are proactive in creating a positive and healthy workplace that promotes good mental health.

According to the Center for Prevention and Health Services, an estimated 217 million days of work are lost each year due to productivity decline related to mental illness. Together with substance use disorders, mental illness is the fifth leading cause of short-term disability and the third leading cause of long-term disability. In short, mental illness is costing employers billions of dollars each year. It simply cannot be ignored.

A recent survey conducted by Buck Consultants at Xerox, found that 84% of employers believe they have a high responsibility to provide a working environment that promotes mental well-being. So employers seem to be aware that the mental health of their employees plays a large role in employee performance. Awareness, however, is only half the battle. This same survey reported that 53% of the respondents still reported that their stress levels are above average and 33% said the stress level in their organization has increased over the past year.

The good news about mental illness is that the majority of mental health issues are treatable. The bad news is that most people do not seek proper treatment and suffer in silence. The main reasons for this include affordability, properly recognizing warning signs, and the unfortunate stigma that is still attached to mental health problems. Actively promoting healthy mental well-being in the workplace could go a long way, however, in breaking down these barriers.

National Mental Health Awareness Month is a great opportunity to bring the discussion to the table in each and every workplace. However, it cannot be something that is acknowledged only one month a year. It needs to be wholly integrated into the workplace culture.

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