Business and Mental Illness

Building a Business Culture that Supports Workers with Mental Illness

One in five Americans will experience a mental illness; our responsibility as senior managers is to design a workplace culture that supports our colleagues and staff when they experience mental illness.

Let’s start by acknowledging the fact that more than 20% of Americans will experience a mental illness this year, and nearly 50% of adults will experience a mental illness in their lifetimes.[i] The 12-month prevalence rate for anxiety disorders is 18.1%. Anxiety disorders include PTSD and OCD and, collectively, are the most common mental disorders in Americans.[ii] Major depression carries the heaviest burden of disability among major and behavioral disorders; its 12-month prevalence rate is 6.7% for all American adults.[iii] Increasingly, adults with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are maintaining full-time careers with medication, therapy, routine, and a strong support system.

This impacts your company. The financial cost of mental illness is a burden companies must bear. Mental illness and substance abuse cost an estimated $80-$100 billion in indirect costs per year. In a 3-month period, adults with depression miss an average of 4.8 workdays and suffer 11.5 days of reduced productivity.[iv] Across the country, depression is estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays per year at a cost between $17-$44 billion.[v]  Active EAPs are one of the most effective ways to support employees with depression, if employees are encouraged to seek help and confident their mental illness will not negatively impact their position in the workplace. Additionally, incorporating physical health and wellness into corporate culture provide adjunct therapies in preventing and treating some mental illnesses, including depression.

Employee Assistance Program (EAP) needs your help. More than half of mood disorders, like anxiety and depression, are never diagnosed. In these cases, employees are unlikely to seek support from the EAP. If an employee’s performance is suffering, an HR referral to the EAP may seem like more of a punishment than a hand up. Change the dialog around EAP to support employees taking care of their mental health as important as care for physical health.

There are several places to look for inspiration when it comes to building a business culture that supports workers with mental illness. Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada launched a “Mental Health @ Work Training Program” that teaches people about mental illness and its impact on businesses, and helps participants development management skills to address those issues.

DuPont launched its mental health awareness campaign “I.C.U” in 2012. It draws parallels between physical and psychological illnesses and centers on teaching workers how to identify the signs of depression in themselves and their colleagues and encourages them to reach out to co-workers who need emotional support. Now available to corporations, the I.C.U. video is a simple way to encourage colleagues to look out for each other and reduces the stigma of mental illness at work.

We can’t afford a DuPont-level campaign! Low-cost changes to workplace environments can start immediately. Mosaic Community Services offers Mental Health First Aid training, as do behavioral healthcare organizations around the world. Encouraging staff to become certified First Aiders provides the opportunity to have open discussions about mental illness and highlight ways employees can be supported within your company.

Focus on removing stigma and negative connotations from workplace banter. Some suggest considering mental illness as you would cancer; it’s an unexpected, requires medical intervention, and is different for every patient, but it’s something from which most people recover. Just as it would be inappropriate to discuss a colleague with cancer, it should be inappropriate to do so about colleagues with mental illness. In both cases, the company must make reasonable accommodations and ensure all employees that their wellness is important.

For more information on Mental Health First Aid Training in central Maryland, visit

[i] Center for Disease Control, Office of Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services, Public Health Surveillance Program

[ii] National Institute of Mental Health

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Valenstein M, Vijan S, Zeber JE, Boehm K, Buttar A. The cost-utility of screening for depression in primary care. Ann Intern Med 2001; 134: 345-360.

[v] Stewart WF, Ricci JA, Chee E, Hahn SR, Morganstein D. Cost of lost productive work time among US workers with depression. JAMA. 2003 Jun 18;289(23):3135-3144.

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