What Employers Can do When it Comes to Mental Health

New tools empower employee wellbeing and save money.

May 17, 2021

Written by Jenny Burke, senior director of the Impairment Practice at the National Safety Council, and Dr. L. Casey Chosewood, MD MPH, director of the Office for Total Worker Health® at CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

In the last year, we have collectively experienced serious change in our society, economy and personal lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated issues below the surface that have been in the workplace for years –  even decades – including the complex challenges of how best to support employee mental health, prevent burnout and minimize the mental distress that arises from tough work demands. Increased workloads and related mental distress often make their way to the surface in times of stress or serious change. When this happens both employees and organizations can pay a heavy price.   

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a serious toll on the mental health of Americans, with 40% of U.S. adults reporting in June 2020 that they struggled with mental health or substance use. Studies show that from February to December 2020, the risk of having a general anxiety disorder increased by 80%. The risk of having depressive disorder has increased by 145%, with women showing the largest increases in stress and anxiety. A snapshot of stress levels in January 2021 revealed that 84% of Americans are experiencing negative emotional states, including feeling sad, angry, scared and unsafe. Initial studies suggest that one in five people who survive infection with COVID-19 may develop a mental illness.

One truth is increasingly clear. Our work and our workplaces impact our mental health and wellbeing.  Almost 9 in 10 employees report that their workplace is causing them stress, and 83% saying they’re experiencing emotional exhaustion as a result of work. This has never been more evident than with the changes in working conditions this past year – with some working from home indefinitely, some in extraordinarily high-stress and high-risk frontline jobs, often for longer hours, and others experiencing layoffs and job insecurities. 

Economic vulnerability and job loss are linked to increased rates of mental distress, suicide and substance use disorders. Mental distress includes periods of intense nervousness, hopelessness, restlessness, depression, feeling like things require great effort, or feeling worthless or down on oneself. This distress is painful and costly for both employers and employees. 

To help employers understand how mental distress impacts their bottom lines, and what they can save by addressing it, NSC and NORC at the University of Chicago have released a Mental Health Cost Calculator, funded by Nationwide. This authoritative, easy-to-use tool comes just in time for Mental Health Month and provides business leaders with individualized, specific information about the cost of employee mental distress at work. 

Emerging research shows that organizations can see a return of $4 for every dollar invested in mental health treatment. Employers have a responsibility to address mental health and support overall employee wellbeing in the workplace on both individual and systemic levels, including working towards the reduction or elimination of stressors in the workplace.

The new tool and its resources can help us take bold actions to improve the work experience, especially when times are tough. The four main recommendations included help organizations:

  • Understand how workplace conditions and culture can impact employee mental health and, in some cases, create or enhance employee mental distress
  • Ensure leaders, managers and supervisors prioritize employee mental health and wellbeing, work to prevent mental distress and support employees who experience it
  • Ensure human resources develop robust, compassionate and clear policies, programs and procedures to prevent mental distress and support employees
  • Provide employee education and increasing awareness on mental wellbeing and distress, as well as awareness of workplace resources, supports and policies 

Addressing employee wellbeing can result in lower costs, improved workplace productivity, increased organizational performance, and lower absenteeism and turnover. Employers spend on average more than $15,000 a year on employees who experience mental distress. Individuals are also spending more on healthcare costs, losing wages and suffering higher rates of disability. This data highlights pre-COVID-19 costs, making the above recommendations for employer action even more relevant as today’s costs are likely to be even higher. 

The NIOSH Worker Well-being Questionnaire (or the NIOSH WellBQ) is another new tool that can help organizations tackle employee wellbeing. This free survey provides a quick, comprehensive and confidential way to measure employee wellbeing across five key domains of life. Most importantly, it directs organizations on priorities for intervention and assistance to improve wellbeing.  

While understanding the impact of worker wellbeing on the bottom line is a critical motivator for organizations, we must be careful to not lose sight of the humanity of this issue. At the end of the day, we are all employees. We have all experienced unprecedented stress and distress over the past year. But hope is on the horizon, and now more than ever we must remember to extend grace to our loved ones, our colleagues and perhaps most importantly, ourselves. 

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