Why the workplace should be the epicenter of mental wellness

What if the best place to address the epidemic of mental illness amongst employees is in their own workplace. In other words, an opportunity to make the biggest impact on this disease in the same place it’s having the biggest impact.

In case you weren’t aware, mental illness impacts just about everyone in America, directly or indirectly. About 1 in five Americans now suffers from some kind of mental illness, from anxiety and depression, to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and nearly a dozen others. But they’re not the only one’s suffering.

Mental illness also impacts loved ones, close family and friends, as well as our schools, our communities, and even our jails and prisons. And the biggest financial cost is being borne by our workplaces, our businesses.

Mental illness is now the #1 workplace disability, costing businesses close to a quarter of a trillion dollars every year in things like absenteeism, lost productivity, and extra healthcare costs.

But the irony is that the workplace could be the solution, that the workplace and not the home should be the epicenter of treatment. And if we’re right, that will help not only the mental wellness of employees, but could also help their co-workers, help productivity and even help the bottom line of every business.

The relationship between mental illness and the workplace can be a very complex and tangled one. For example, you might have employees struggling with mental illness who don’t want their co-workers knowing in case they might pity them or think less of them. Or maybe they’re worried that it might affect future promotions and opportunities and even their job security, you know, legitimate worry that they might be fired.

But on the flip side of that, many who suffer from mental illnesses really do want their co-workers to know and understand – but only as long as that revelation is a positive, supportive, and safe one. And while you’ll never know until you try, for many employees that’s just too big a risk.

For many struggling with mental illness, the workplace can be the greatest source of stress, of additional harm, of triggers that can make things so much worse. And that’s because employees struggling with the disease know that it’s probably impacting their performance and reputation but are frustrated, even screaming inside, because they’re unable to explain why.

So just knowing that your co-workers now finally understand why you’ve been behaving a certain way – whether it’s being absent a lot, checked out even when you’re there, not involved or focused, cranky, sad, negative, hypercritical – any of the dozen different manifestations.

Just knowing that your co-workers now finally understand and are sympatric can often immediately stop a downward spiral or turn it into an upward one. It’s much easier to rise, to float back up when you’re carrying less weight.

So, if we can turn the workplace into a safe place, a place of openness, understanding, support, even therapy, then not only might we remove one of the biggest challenges and fears for these employees, we could make things so much better for everyone.

When There’s Nobody Home

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that home might not always be the best place to help someone dealing with mental health issues. There may simply be nobody at home, and maybe just because the mental illness makes relationships difficult. Or there is someone at home, a spouse perhaps, but they’re not able to listen, or understand, or help. Or they’re just not interested.

Or, as is commonly the case, spouses, family members, loved ones, even friends may be so exhausted from years of trying to help that they simply no longer want to hear about it. They’ve checked out, and maybe through no fault of their own.

That’s why the workplace, maybe every workplace, could make life and work so much easier for so many. Not by creating a policy that says supportive and positive things, or celebrating mental health day once a year – which is October 10th by the way – but by creating culture of mental wellness that recognizes, understands, and even embraces mental illness, loud, proud, visible and vocal so that there’s never even the remotest chance that fear of stigma will keep any employee silent and suffering when there’s absolutely no need.

Neal O'Farrell
Founder of GetBetter@Work and a recovering cybersecurity expert.

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