The goal of a wellness program is to offer employees opportunities for better health and wellbeing. When implementing their programs, many employers focus on fitness and nutrition initiatives, but rarely address important mental health issues. Studies, however, show that mental health also has an important effect on employee health and productivity. Employers are encouraged to implement mental health initiatives in their wellness programs so they can deliver a full spectrum of wellness opportunities to their employees.
Research shows that poor mental health has a major impact on both employees and employers. Mental health issues are often linked to productivity loss, absenteeism, job abandonment, and higher turnover. Home and work demands can often increase employee stress level, making it difficult to cope without essential stress management skills and techniques. This added stress can often lead to more serious issues, like anxiety and depression.
According to a 2006 survey conducted by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 79 percent of workers in the United States suffer from stress and anxiety. More than half reported that stress and anxiety most often affects their performance at work, relationships with coworkers, and their quality of work. Excessive anxiety can often lead to frequent panic attacks, resulting in an increase in absenteeism and disability claims.
Depression is another important issue, and often more serious if left untreated. Employee assistance professionals report depression among the top three workplace issues they see each year. Studies have shown that depression costs over $51 billion in work absenteeism and loss of productivity and $26 billion in health care costs. Depression is defined as a mental illness characterized by feelings of profound sadness and lack of interest in enjoyable activities. Development of clinical depression can often lead to self-injury and/or suicide. Symptoms of depression can often go unseen due to lack of education and stigma associated with the disease.
What can employers do?
Employers can take steps to improve their employees’ mental health through tolerance and education. Be sure your corporate culture encourages wellness and stress management in the workplace. Employees should not be discriminated against for mental illness, use of psychiatric drugs, or association with therapy groups. Encourage an open door policy, and reassure your employees that any information they share is confidential. If possible, also encourage senior management to consider implementing a flextime policy for employees. These policies will decrease stress levels without compromising on productivity.
Incorporate mental health topics in your wellness program strategy and activities. Some great examples include:
- Providing educational information on mental health topics, including anxiety, stress management, and depression
- Providing tips and classes on stress management
- Providing information on better time management and prioritization
- Encouraging the development of focus groups
- Including an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) as part of your group health care benefits
- Inviting medical professionals to lecture about mental health topics
- Spotlighting various mental health issues in wellness newsletters or through other forms of media
The bottom line
Mental health is a topic rarely seen in many of today’s wellness programs. Studies, however, have pointed to its dramatic effect on employee absenteeism, productivity loss, and morale issues. As an HR professional, it’s important to incorporate mental health initiatives to tackle these problems and to offer our employees a complete wellness package. Addressing mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression can open doors to better tolerance, and the development of a corporate culture that truly supports health of body and mind.