Mental Health in the Workplace - Southwest EAP
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Mental Health in the Workplace

Many managers incorrectly assume that an employee’s mental health is none of their business. In fact, an employee’s mental health can have an enormous impact on their performance — as well as that of their co-workers — which can have a negative impact on the company’s bottom line. One in five Americans has a diagnosable mental health condition, so it’s a business imperative that management makes employee mental health their business.

Why? The Centers for Disease Control estimates that mental illness and substance abuse issues cost businesses between $79 and $105 billion every year. Reduced productivity, absenteeism, and increased healthcare costs are just a few of the ways that mental illness costs employers money.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), workplaces harbor many risk factors for mental health that may be present in the working environment. Most risks relate to interactions between type of work, the organizational and managerial environment, the skills and competencies of employees, and the support available for employees to carry out their work. For example, a person may have the skills to complete tasks, but they may have too few resources to do what is required, or there may be unsupportive managerial or organizational practices.

Risks to mental health include:

  • inadequate health and safety policies
  • poor communication and management practices
  • limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work
  • low levels of support for employees
  • inflexible working hours
  • unclear tasks or organizational objectives

Risks may also be related to job content, such as unsuitable tasks for the person’s competencies or a high and unrelenting workload. Some jobs may carry a higher personal risk than others (e.g., first responders and humanitarian workers), which can have a negative impact on mental health and result in symptoms of mental disorders or lead to harmful use of alcohol or psychoactive drugs. Risk may be increased in situations where there is a lack of team cohesion or social support.

Bullying and psychological harassment are commonly reported causes of work-related stress by employees and present both psychological and physical mental health risks. These health consequences can have costs for employers in terms of reduced productivity and increased staff turnover. They can also have a negative impact on an employee’s family and social interactions.

Creating a Healthy Workplace

A healthy workplace can be described as one where workers and managers actively contribute to the working environment by promoting and protecting the health, safety and well-being of all employees. A recent guide from the World Economic Forum suggests that interventions should take a three-pronged approach:

  1. Protect mental health by reducing work-related risk factors.
  2. Promote mental health by developing the positive aspects of work and the strengths of employees.
  3. Address mental health problems regardless of cause.

The guide highlights steps organizations can take to create a healthy workplace, including:

  • Awareness of the workplace environment and how it can be adapted to promote better mental health for different employees
  • Learning from the motivations of organizational leaders and employees who have taken action
  • Not reinventing wheels by being aware of what other companies have done
  • Understanding the opportunities and needs of individual employees, in helping to develop better policies for workplace mental health
  • Awareness of sources of support and where people can find help

Interventions and good practices that protect and promote mental health in the workplace include:

  • Implementing and enforcing health and safety policies and practices. This includes identification of distress, harmful use of psychoactive substances and providing resources to manage them
  • Informing employees that support is available through an employee assistance program
  • Involving employees in decision-making, conveying a feeling of control and participation; organizational practices that support a healthy work-life balance
  • Implementing programs for career development
  • Recognizing and rewarding employee contributions

Mental health interventions should be delivered as part of an integrated health and wellness strategy that covers prevention, early identification, support and rehabilitation.

Available cost-benefit research on strategies to address mental health points towards net benefits. For example, a recent WHO-led study estimated that for every $1 put into scaled-up treatment for common mental health disorders, businesses realize a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.

Supporting People with Mental Disorders at Work

Organizations have a responsibility to support employees with mental health disorders in either continuing or returning to work. Research shows that unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, can have a detrimental impact on mental health.

Many of the initiatives outlined above can help employees with mental disorders. In particular, flexible hours, job redesign, addressing negative workplace dynamics, supportive and confidential communication with management and an employee assistance network can help people with mental disorders continue to or return to work. Access to evidence-based treatments has been shown to be beneficial for depression and other mental disorders.

Employers need to ensure that individuals feel supported and able to ask for support in continuing with or returning to work and are provided with the necessary resources to do their job.

How to Encourage Good Employee Mental Hygiene

It’s up to leadership to set the tone for a healthy working environment. Here are a few tips that can help.

Promote work/life balance. Management needs to walk the walk and talk the talk so teams will be comfortable knowing that their “me” time is valuable. Encourage employees to use their paid time off to recharge their batteries. And leadership must do the same to serve as role models.

No 24/7 email. Promoting an environment where employees are expected to respond to emails 24 hours a day is not healthy. A good example of an employee-centric email policy comes from Volkswagen: Their email servers stop routing messages 30 minutes after the end of employees’ shifts, and then they start again 30 minutes before they return to work.

End the cult of overwork. Of course, this doesn’t mean the leadership team should encourage slacking, but the pervasiveness of always-on work culture can be harmful. It’s not healthy when employees compete to be last to leave the office, nor should it be a status symbol to continually talk about how busy they are. Productivity and performance should be the predictors of success, not hours logged per week.

Encourage the use of EAPs. It’s been proven time and time again that mentally healthy employees are more productive, have fewer absences, and are less prone to work-related injury. When management encourages their team members to use the services an EAP provides, employees gain confidence that they’re working in a supportive environment. This, in turn, can improve satisfaction and employee engagement.

Southwest EAP has provided employee assistance programs and risk management solutions to companies since 1978. Our commitment to excellence is founded on the belief that active partnership with our client companies and delivering face-to-face services produces the best results. For more information, please visit