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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, May 19, 2019 1:00 am

Mental health focus good for business

Kristina Johnson

About the series

Today's piece is the third in a series of essays appearing each Sunday in May in recognition of National Mental Health Awareness month.

May 5: Mental health in the faith community

May 12: How parents can help their children achieve mental health

Today: Mental health in the workplace

May 26: Dealing with PTSD and other types of trauma

More information on today's topic is available at LookUpIndiana.org/communities/workplace

National Mental Health Awareness Month is an opportune time for employers to promote positive well-being in the workplace.

Focusing on worker health and safety should not only address physical welfare, but mental and emotional well-being as well. Mental health concerns are common, and conditions such as depression and anxiety affect every industry and occupation, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity.

Our working environments have changed in ways that would have been difficult to imagine a generation ago. These changes have certainly brought opportunities for professional development, expanding networks and innovation. However, the extent and pace of change, when coupled with a working environment that doesn't consider people's mental well-being, can lead to physical and mental health issues, harmful use of alcohol or other substances, absenteeism and lost productivity.

Indeed, the lost productivity resulting from depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental health conditions, is estimated to cost the global economy $1 trillion each year, according to the World Health Organization.

Many factors influence employees' mental health. Organizational issues include poor communication and management practices, limited participation in decision-making, long or inflexible working hours, and lack of team cohesion. Bullying and psychological harassment are well-known causes of work-related stress and related mental health problems.

Working environments where rapid, life-saving decisions need to be made – for example, by first responders in emergencies – also come with their own challenges.

Fortunately, there is a growing recognition that the mental well-being of employees has a positive effect on organizational success as well as on employee health, professional fulfillment and quality of life. The best companies invest in the health and well-being of their workers throughout the day.

There are many steps organizations can take:

Reduce stigma and create a positive workplace: Let's face it, there is stigma surrounding mental illness; it can be a tricky topic to discuss at work. By revealing issues, people fear becoming isolated, viewed as abnormal and considered unfit for the job. Employers have an important role to play in supporting employees with education about mental health and creating open dialogue.

Focus on early intervention/prevention: Considering that we spend a considerable amount of time each day at work, and that work can be rife with stressors such as workload, deadlines, behaviors and personalities of co-workers, management styles, worries relating to job security and so on, educating about healthy ways to cope with stress makes sense. It can help address issues before they become debilitating and costly for the organization.

Treat issues to reduce impact: If an employee is suffering from mental health symptoms, you may or may not know about it. But having those resources already in place for an employee to use can get them the help they need quickly. Providing a variety of options for an employee to get treatment – whether that's through your benefits plan, a wellness counselor on staff, online programs such as LookUpIndiana.org or a combination of these – will help reduce suffering for that employee and help address their reduced functioning at work.

Improve productivity and engagement: When you are physically fit, you tend to be healthier. It's the same with mental health. Improving the mental health of your employees can improve thinking, decision-making, workflow and relationships at work. All of these translate to increased productivity. And your employees will see you playing a positive role in helping them to be their best selves.

Reduce costs and risk: Promoting mental health can also be a wise financial decision for businesses. Investing in a mentally healthy workplace can generate cost savings by reducing absenteeism and presenteeism (defined as being ill and distracted at work), as well as disability claims and lost productivity.

As a responsible employer, supporting your employees' mental health is the right thing to do. And it's also simply good business. 

Kristina Johnson is director of community initiatives at The Lutheran Foundation.