Workplace mental health focus a growing issue

by The City Wire staff ( 15 views 

With depression reported as a leading cause of lost productivity in the United States, a new initiative encourages companies to invest in their workforce to gain healthier, more productive employees, as well as achieve decreased disability costs, less turnover and better retention of valued employees, according to the national coalition Employers Health.

A Harvard University Medical School study suggested that untreated mental illness cost U.S. businesses $105 billion in lost productivity alone. A 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 45.6 million adults (18+) suffer from a form of mental illness, or 19.6% of all Americans. Of the 45.6 million, the DHS study estimated that 38.2 million received some treatment during the previous 12 months.

The Ohio-based Employers Health has teamed with the American Psychiatric Foundation's Partnership for Workplace Mental Health to create the program Right Direction to raise awareness about depression in the workplace and its effect on productivity, promote early recognition of symptoms, and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.

An official with the Springdale-based Ozark Guidance endorsed the initiative. David Duerr, a credentialed human resources professional and the community mental health center's director of business services, applauded the program and called it part of a growing movement.

Ozark Guidance is "taking the lead of taking 'mental health first aid' into Arkansas," he said, explaining the term is comparable to CPR training. "This is the aid we render to somebody" until professionals can take over.

Mental health first aid is a national program that Ozark Guidance uses to train Northwest Arkansas managers and HR professionals on "the signs and symptoms of the most common mental illnesses. Those signs are depression, anxiety disorders – which are more common than mood disorders including depression – as well as substance abuse, eating disorders and so on," Duerr said, adding the program includes empathetic listening skills, "how you talk to somebody with these symptoms or who is in immediate crisis."

"Employee satisfaction and well-being are strongly linked to business success, which is just one of the many reasons it's important to support those experiencing depression in the workplace," Marcas Miles, a representative of Employers Health in Ohio, said in a press release.

Despite advances in treatments, only one-third of people with diagnosable mental health conditions seek care, according to the release.

Most people won't seek mental health care on their own, Duerr said, in part due to lack of knowledge, the stigma of such disorders or worries over health insurance coverage.

While details remain in the planning stages, the federal Affordable Care Act, where universal health care coverage begins Jan. 1, should help more workers be covered for treatment of common mental disorders, he said.

"We will have 250,000 more people covered in Arkansas than now,” Duerr predicted.

Duerr added that Medicaid will be covering the most serious psychiatric afflictions.

Anxiety and mood disorders, substance abuse and similar problems generally begin to hit people in the prime of their working years, their 20s and early 30s, he said, noting that depression can either be episodic, over a personal crisis, or chronic, a continuing condition.

"I think HR professionals in general are aware of the numbers" of people with these conditions, Duerr said. "They know these conditions are costing companies money. Yet, there's things, like confidentiality and privacy factors, that limit what they can do. So their action is more a reaction. They don't take action until there's a performance problem. Then there's action taken."

Most Arkansas employers are small with "just a few, which you can list on one hand, with over 500 employees," he said. "HR offices are hard-pressed, by their own limited resources, to be pro-active. Bigger ones can be." Duerr explained that HR staffs can shepherd an employee with an emotional issue by suggesting professional care and details on what their insurance policies will cover.

Depression costs businesses through employee absenteeism, disability and lost productivity. The last is a sign of what Employers Health called "presenteeism."

Duerr said the human resources profession started using the term presenteeism about seven years ago to describe showing up for work physically but mentally not being there. While depression is a major reason for presenteeism, Ozark Guidance's Duerr also cited anxiety disorders and even hangovers.

"We come to work when we're under duress. We see that maybe it's safer at work, maybe over a problem at home. Or we need a paycheck so we drag ourselves to work," he said.

"Here in Arkansas, businesses understand the value of a good employee, they want to help keep them, and help them through the rough times."

The national Right Direction program is centered on its free Field Guide toolkit of educational presentations and promotional materials.

"We want to encourage information-seeking behavior around depression, help employees get healthy through a variety of resources and tools, and help employers improve the health of their bottom line through improved work performance, increased productivity, decreased absenteeism and, importantly, improved job satisfaction," said Clare Miller, director of the American Psychiatric Foundation's Partnership for Workplace Mental Health.