Mental Health Problems in the Workplace

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Mental health problems in the workplace
FEB 2010

Low treatment rates imperil workers’ careers and companies’ productivity. Mental health problems affect many employees — a fact that is usually overlooked because these disorders tend to be hidden at work. Researchers analyzing results from the U.S. National Comorbidity Survey, a nationally representative study of Americans ages 15 to 54, reported that 18% of those who were employed said they experienced symptoms of a mental health disorder in the previous month. But the stigma attached to having a psychiatric disorder is such that employees may be reluctant to seek treatment — especially in the current economic climate — out of fear that they might jeopardize their jobs. At the same time, managers may want to help but aren’t sure how to do so. And clinicians may find themselves in unfamiliar territory, simultaneously trying to treat a patient while providing advice about dealing with the illness at work. As a result, mental health disorders often go unrecognized and untreated — not only damaging an individual’s health and career, but also reducing productivity at work. Adequate treatment, on the other hand, can alleviate symptoms for the employee and improve job performance. But accomplishing these aims requires a shift in attitudes about the nature of mental disorders and the recognition that such a worthwhile achievement takes effort and time. Here’s a quick guide to the most common mental health problems in the workplace, and how they affect both employees and employers. Key points * Symptoms of mental health disorders may be different at work than in other situations. * Although these disorders may cause absenteeism, the biggest impact is in lost productivity. * Studies suggest that treatment improves work performance, but is not a quick fix.| Stealth symptoms, tangible impact

Symptoms of common problems — such as depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety — are all described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). But symptoms tend to manifest differently at work than they do at home or in other settings. Although symptoms may go unnoticed, the economic consequences are tangible. Studies assessing the full work impact of mental health disorders often use the World Health Organization (WHO) Health and Work Performance Questionnaire, which not only asks employees to report how many days they called in sick, but also asks them to assess, on a graded scale, how productive they were on the days they actually were at work. The results are measured in days out of work (absenteeism) and lost productivity (“presenteeism”). In one study examining the financial impact of 25 chronic physical and mental health problems, researchers polled 34,622 employees at 10 companies. The researchers tabulated the amount of money the companies spent on medical and pharmacy costs for employees, as well as employees’ self-reported absenteeism and lost productivity, using the WHO questionnaire. When researchers ranked the most costly health conditions (including direct and indirect costs), depression ranked first, and anxiety ranked fifth — with obesity, arthritis, and back and neck pain in between. Many of the studies in this field have concluded that the indirect costs of mental health disorders — particularly lost productivity — exceed companies’ spending on direct costs, such as health insurance contributions and pharmacy expenses. Given the generally low rates of treatment, the researchers suggest that companies should invest in the mental health of workers — not only for the sake of the employees but to improve their own bottom line. Depression is the mental health disorder that has been best studied in the workplace, partly because it is so common in the general population. One survey of a nationally representative sample reported that about 6% of employees experience symptoms of...
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