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March 19, 2018 Other Voices

Employers gain by helping workers with mental health issues

Brianne Lott

A person with a disability does not always use a wheelchair, hearing aid or white cane.

An estimated 10 percent of people in the U.S. have an invisible or hidden disability, such as diabetes, arthritis or even mental illness.

Chances are a significant portion of your current employees could use support with mental illness, but are not willing to speak up due to the stigma often associated with this misunderstood disability. Employers must change this climate of fear in the workplace. Based on recent events and how they are portrayed in the media, a stereotype persists that people with mental illness are dangerous or violent, when in fact, the opposite is true. People who suffer from a mental illness are more likely to harm themselves.

There are many reasons employees do not want to share their struggles with mental illness. They believe that speaking about it may lead to ridicule and unfair/incorrect assumptions from others.

Employees fear that disclosing this type of disability may lead to unwanted changes to job duties, decreased chances of promotion, unfavorable treatment from co-workers and possibly even termination.

Mental health in the workplace

Depression is the second-leading cause of disability in the world. Other conditions that can be completely debilitating and can make performing everyday tasks extremely difficult, if not impossible, include anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Not only is supporting employees who are working through mental health and/or substance abuse issues the right thing to do morally and ethically, there are solid business reasons to do so:

• Mental health issues can negatively affect productivity, physical health and attendance, and account for a large percentage of a company's healthcare claims.

• Mental illness causes more lost workdays and impairment than arthritis, asthma, back pain, diabetes and heart disease.

• Alcohol use disorders account for approximately 500 million lost work days per year, and cost the U.S. economy about $240 billion per year.

• Substance use disorders cost the U.S. economy about $276 million per year.

• Employees who are happy at work and feel supported by their supervisors are less likely to leave and more likely to perform well.

Creating a work culture that encourages employees to get the help they need is not inherently difficult.

Strategies include educating employees about your company's policies and practices related to disability inclusion, commitment to equal employment opportunity and open door policies.

You can also leverage existing or start new employee resource groups, or invite community groups for people with disabilities or veterans to come to your workplace to provide outreach and resources to employees. You should also regularly highlight the benefits provided by your company's employee assistance programs.

You should also consider offering peer and mentor support, and encourage management and supervisors to disclose their own issues. When supervisors are not afraid to talk about their disabilities, whatever they may be, employees will be encouraged to do so as well.

If you implement some or all of these strategies don't be surprised when you start reaping the financial benefits from increased employee retention rates, decreased employee absences, and increased productivity.

Eighty-percent of employees who disclosed the aforementioned issues to their employer and received treatment reported increased work efficacy and productivity.

Brianne Lott is a hiring and engagement consultant with Disability Solutions, a nonprofit consulting service that provides strategies to hire and assist workers with disabilities to create a diverse workforce.

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