Liz Sheffield

Destigmatizing Invisible Illness, Part 1: Mental Health

When half your staff is sneezing and coughing, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that there’s something going around. Your workforce might even make jokes about the “office plague” that seems to return at the same point every year. But when it comes to mental illness in the workplace, many prevalent health concerns seem to slip under the radar.

These are “invisible illnesses,” and they include mental health conditions that present as anxiety or depression. While these conditions may not be as noticeable to the unobservant eye, they’re a daily obstacle for the employees who face these health issues on a daily basis.

When these symptoms aren’t addressed, as with any illness, they can negatively impact your work environment, decrease employee productivity and cut into your bottom line. It’s estimated that mental health conditions (and substance abuse) cost U.S. employers between $80 billion and $100 billion a year.

As an employer, it’s not your place to diagnose mental health conditions in your employees. But you can help them address the invisible illnesses they may be experiencing. Here are three steps to take.

1. Increase Employee Awareness of Mental Health

It may not have obvious physical signs, but depression isn’t uncommon. The National Institute on Mental Health estimates that 16.2 million adults (6.7 percent of all adults in the U.S.) had at least one major depressive episode in 2016. That means they had depressive symptoms like loss of interest, problems eating and sleeping or frequent thoughts of suicide for two weeks or longer.

The truth is, most employees will encounter a mental health condition at some point in their lives. If not, then they’re almost guaranteed to be a bystander to a friend or family member’s mental health condition, even if they don’t know it.

The first step in making an illness more visible is ensuring that people are aware it exists. Knowing that depression is a mental health condition that impacts people around the globe — and in every organization — will encourage your employees to be aware of relevant symptoms in themselves and others.

2. Reinforce Positive Conversations and Destigmatize Conditions

Your organization can also assist those in need of support by reinforcing positive workplace conversations that reduce the stigma around mental health. Rather than fearing that opening up about mental health will hurt their career, employees will pick up on deliberate changes in company culture that encourage staff members to learn more about mental health and to talk with a health care provider or someone they trust if they have concerns.

While fostering these kinds of conversations, keep the importance of terminology in mind. Mental Health America suggests replacing hurtful words such as “psycho,” “crazy” and “lunatic” with a less negative phrase like “people with mental health conditions.” Be aware of language that reinforces negative stereotypes and replace it with more empowering words for those who have a mental health condition. It all adds up to employees being seen as people, not as their condition.

If you’re nervous about starting these conversations yourself, take advantage of the resources others have pulled together. Many countries have established their own mental illness awareness weeks. In the U.S., it takes place the first week of October. While you don’t want to limit conversations to one week out of the year, use the momentum of that week to kick off your mental health programs and conversations. As part of their ongoing discussions regarding a healthy workplace, encourage leaders to share how they stay mentally healthy, or how they’ve addressed issues in their own life. When leaders reinforce positive conversations, it illustrates how mental health solutions help people succeed.

3. Provide Information About Mental Health Benefits and Resources

In your communications about health and wellness, provide information about mental health benefits that are part of your health plan, including behavioral health counseling and any relevant employee assistance plan offerings.

Be sure employees know that just as they may request reasonable accommodations for other health issues, they can also request them for mental health conditions. The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides examples of reasonable mental health accommodations, including:

  • Flexible work and break schedules, working from home or telecommuting
  • Fewer distractions or a quiet work area
  • Job coaches or written instructions
  • Quiet places to rest during a break

As part of the benefits and resources you provide, consider what other programs your organization might be able to offer that support self-help strategies, from exercise facilities and meditation classes to mental health workshops.

As an employer, you’re in a position to shine a positive light on mental illness in the workplace and make invisible illnesses visible. Make the most of this opportunity to bring about awareness and connect employees to the support and resources they need.

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