Mental health — especially in the business world — is not often discussed openly. Though U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, and despite the effort to increase awareness in recent years, the topic of mental health still carries a stigma.

Breaking through misconceptions about mental health in the workplace is critical for organizations, not only to help their employees thrive but to maintain the organization’s health. Employees’ mental health has an enormous impact on their job satisfaction, productivity and the organization’s success.

An untreated mental illness and work-related stress negatively affects an employee’s job performance while also weakening their engagement and connection with co-workers. In some cases, these effects can extenuate to an employee’s physical health.

Let’s dive into some insights on how to create a company culture that promotes mental health and is proactive about optimizing employee well-being.

The Connection Between Mental Health and Productivity

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, with more than 300 million people living with depression globally. Without strategic prevention and intervention practices from organizations, employees can feel reluctant to take action or admit they need help due to the negative stigma surrounding mental health struggles, further isolating themselves and preventing them from receiving the support they need.

In a report about overcoming the mental illness stigma in the workplace, researchers link the impact of mental illness with employee productivity. Consider the following points:

  • Increase In Presenteeism. Unlike absenteeism, when a worker is not present at work, presenteeism refers to an employee working when they really shouldn’t due to a physical ailment or medical condition that can impair performance, thus reducing productivity.

Presenteeism accounts for a staggering loss in productivity — 81% of lost productivity is due to presenteeism, and 80% of the costs from lost productivity are due to presenteeism, which is four times more than the costs associated with absenteeism.

Yes, that’s right: It’s less costly for a company to have their employees not show up at all than to show up and not be able to perform optimally due to a mental or physical health issue.

  • Mental health disability can last for a while. The effects of a mental illness can exacerbate health conditions and outcomes in other areas.
  • Depressed employees have a higher job turnover. Employees struggling with depression reported a 15% job loss rate compared to 3.5% in non-depressed employees.
  • Most depressed employees are not being treated. Stigma and shame prevent a majority of depressed employees from seeking treatment. 72% of employers report that the mental health stigma stops employees from finding proper care.
  • Anxiety disorders impact an average of 5.5 workdays a month. During these days, an employee is unable to optimally work, thus taking a hard hit at productivity.
  • Signs of mental illness can be hard to see. Due to the mental health stigma, employees often work through the symptoms, making it hard for others to catch the early signs. Some disorders, like anxiety, can also manifest into physical symptoms, (e.g., headaches, panic attacks), that can shift the focus from the root of the cause.

Identifying Mental Health Concerns

Mental health has a deep impact on employee productivity and well-being; however, if employees aren’t open about their struggles, it can be difficult for employers to show support and intervene when necessary. There are many ways to increase awareness, empathy and open communication about mental health in the workplace. This might mean:

  • Rolling out training modules, lunch and learns and webinars on simple ways to reduce stress and support mental health.
  • Resources and tools to help employees assess their mental health and identify next steps if needed.
  • Providing resources to support nutrition, exercise and other lifestyle considerations that reduce stress and support mental and physical well-being.
  • Regularly assessing employee workload.
  • Paying attention to signs like changes in an employee’s personality or decline in their work quality and addressing them proactively, from a nonconfrontational perspective.
  • Ensure employee benefits and health insurance consider mental health counseling in their scope.
  • Anonymous tip reporting: allowing employees to report information if they’re concerned about another employee and know that the information will be routed to the appropriate manager to help.

Tactical Strategies for Creating a Stigma-free Environment

All the training and resources in the world won’t be useful for an organization’s culture that holds a stigma about mental health. The good news: Having communication structures in place, available social support, the ability to run programs and policies from a central team and the ability to collect data that can be used to track progress, can help.

Consider these tactical strategies to begin creating a stigma-free work environment:

  • Start at the top: Train leadership to speak openly about the importance of mental health and to lead by example by encouraging the use of resources.
  • Host seminars, distribute materials and make resources visible and available to remove barriers to access.
  • Create dedicated spaces for promoting stress relief and relaxation and encourage employees to use them.
  • Train managers to recognize the warning signs of a mental illness and to offer helpful resources to employees.
  • Give employees a voice in making decisions that may impact their mental health or workload.
  • Encourage peer-to-peer sharing to normalize mental health topics.
  • Provide free wellness consultations and an employee assistance program (EAP) that extends access to employees’ family members as well.
  • Create anonymous tip reporting to identify areas of the company’s culture that are negatively impacting employees’ mental health.

Organizations Cannot Afford To Ignore Mental Health Concerns

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many organizations to reassess their culture, from the work environment to communication methods and the impact mental health concerns can have on a company’s most valuable resource: their people.

Organizations can’t afford to ignore the impact of employees’ mental health on productivity. A healthy, productive company culture begins with creating a culture of transparency, empathy and support, removing stigma and supporting employees’ health and well-being in and out of the workplace.