What Happens When Major Companies Take Mental Health Seriously

Psychological conditions don't just disappear when employees get to the office.
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Matthew Shaw was working as a journalist in London in 2014 when he experienced a bout of depression on the job. He realized that the resources available to him and his colleagues weren't necessarily addressing their needs, and many people felt they had to keep their diagnoses a secret.

Fast-forward two years, and Shaw is a visiting fellow at the University of Michigan Depression Center, where he's looking into how workplaces can make mental health a priority.

"A lot of us are bringing our mental health issues with us when we go to work," he told The Huffington Post. "I felt guilty talking about it, I think a lot of people do. But the truth of it is, people have mental health issues and they go to work. That doesn't go away."

Shaw certainly isn't alone in his experience. Approximately one in five American adults experience a mental health issue in a given year, but frank discussions about these illnesses are still lacking in the workplace. Many employees stay quiet about their conditions out of fear that they'll only be further stigmatized -- or even held back professionally -- if they discuss medication, time off or therapy with a boss or coworkers.

"Studies have shown that [more accepting] workplaces have happier employees with better productivity," Michelle Riba, a professor of psychiatry and the associate director of the University of Michigan Depression Center, told HuffPost. "Unfortunately, many places are not like that, and even certain types of jobs aren't accommodating to that."

Aside from the personal burden, not talking about and treating mental health issues openly is bad business, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depression can result in approximately five missed work days and 11.5 days of reduced productivity every three months for an individual. Overall, it costs 200 million lost workdays per year in the United States at a cost of $17 to $44 billion dollars in lost productivity. Simply put, company success relies on healthy employees.

Fixing the culture of work

Research shows that mental health treatment can help people live better lives. The more comfortable employees feel, Riba said, the more likely it is they'll seek help for managing psychological issues.

While there are laws in place that protect people with serious illnesses including depression from being fired because of their health challenges, employees need to disclose the nature of their condition in order to get this protection.

Experts argue that if you're able to be open about a physical disease with a manager -- something like cancer or diabetes -- the same mindset and courtesy should be applied to mental health. Employers should view someone's health as a unit, says Donna Hardaker, a workplace mental health consultant and director of Mental Health America of California's Wellness Works project.

"Organizations need to be strategically addressing psychological health in the workplace," she explained. "All decisions regarding employees, work and projects should be looked at through a holistic lens and how it affects an employee's overall wellbeing. It takes time, it takes strong leadership to push against internal challenges around change, but that's the best solution."

Some corporations are already ahead of the curve

One of the businesses hoping to set the bar for mental health practices is Unilever. The 172,000-person company has a global health initiative in place for all employees that includes a comprehensive program specifically tailored to mental health. They provide mental health trainings for managers and senior leaders, host internal campaigns to raise awareness about mental illness, and hold regular employee workshops on sleep, mindfulness and exercise -- all of which have been linked to better psychological wellbeing.

The goal of Unilever's health initiative is to erase stigma around mental illness and encourage employees to seek support, should they ever need it.

"If you want a high-performing company, you need resilient, healthy employees," said Unilever's chief learning officer, Tim Munden. "We want our employees to have confidence to have a conversation about mental health. People are very reluctant to speak about it so we want to give people the space to talk about it."

Shaw has seen similar initiatives with other companies that he has studied as part of his fellowship. He was surprised to find many large corporations, like American Express and Prudential, are starting to put mental health programs in place -- and even better, they're actually working.

"It sounds really obvious, but senior employees being invested in someone's mental health is really beneficial," Shaw explained. "Top level visibility on these issues, like emails and conversations from managers, is a transformative thing."

“Whatever goes on for employees outside of work also goes on inside of work. Helping people manage that is just the right thing to do.”

- Tim Munden, Chief Learning Officer of Unilever

How other companies can follow suit

The key is making help accessible to employees, and most importantly, creating a safe space for people to open up about their conditions, Hardaker says.

A good start would be for businesses to take advantage of Employee Assistance Programs, which offer services or benefits to employees with workplace or personal issues. When it comes to mental health, EAPs can provide counselors or access to clinicians for employees who may be struggling. EAPs are one of the most effective ways to support employees with mental health conditions in the workplace, according to the CDC.

But in order to really make a difference, Hardaker says companies need to extend their focus beyond a standard, bare-bones level employee program and implement informational workshops and trainings that encourage people to think about their emotional health.

"It's not enough to just hang up posters with a [helpline] phone number to reduce stigma and encourage people to get help," she said. "We have to have people talk about it in a workplace setting -- through trainings and informational sessions -- and be able to offer suggestions from place of knowledge."

Ultimately, programs that concentrate on an employee's psychological wellbeing go beyond a company's bottom line. Progressive approaches to mental health at work make a difference in people's lives -- and that's worth more than a profit.

"Mental health is a growing challenge in society," Munden said. "And whatever goes on for employees outside of work also goes on inside of work. Helping people manage that is just the right thing to do."

We’re focusing on mental illness and the workplace in honor of Mental Health Month. If you have a story or blog you’d like to share about wellbeing at work, please email strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.

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