Buck Bond Group

Stumbling blocks to workplace mental health

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Lori Block

“May is Mental Health month, and to help raise awareness, I asked Dr. Bruce Sherman for his thoughts on our recent survey, Promoting Mental Well-being.” Lori Block, Principal, Engagement Practice

The U.S. workforce is the most stress-ridden in the world, as revealed by our recent survey, Promoting Mental Well-being. Over half of all American employees are struggling with stress, overwork, depression and anxiety, substance abuse and burnout. More than a third of U.S. employers rate the stress level within their organization as “high or very high.”  All of these factors affect a person’s mental well-being – and for employers, this becomes a bottom-line issue.

“The cost to employers of stress in general and poor mental health in particular is significant,” says Dr. Bruce Sherman, Medical Director, Population Health Management-Exchange Solutions. “Beyond the direct impact on health care claims cost, mental health issues exacerbate treatment costs for other medical conditions, all of which may result in reduced worker productivity, as well as increased absenteeism and incidences of disability claims. Mental health concerns can also contribute to workplace safety problems.”


“It’s important that employers treat mental health issues as they do other issues affecting an individual’s health, and that they do so in a manner that assures employees of their privacy.” – Dr. Bruce Sherman, Medical Director, Population Health Management, Exchange Solutions


The vast majority of surveyed employers believe they have a responsibility to provide a working environment that promotes mental well-being. Employee performance is the most important reason organizations address work-related stress and poor mental well-being. Decreased mental well-being can limit a person’s ability to make good decisions, cope with daily challenges, manage interpersonal relationships, realize their full potential, and make a productive and fruitful contribution to their work team, family and community.

The fact that employers see the need to promote mental well-being in their workplace – often as part of a total well-being program – is a positive step and represents real progress. “Historically, mental health issues have had a stigma attached to them, making employers cautious about addressing them beyond offering an EAP; meanwhile, employees have often failed to utilize their employer’s EAP either out of a belief that they will be stigmatized for reaching out or feeling that such a program offers at most a temporary Band-Aid,” says Dr. Sherman. “By presenting good mental health as part of overall well-being, employers can help remove the stigma and from there be more impactful in connecting employees with the appropriate resources.”

The companies we surveyed offer a wide array of programs to promote mental well-being, with work/life balance support, physical activity, leadership training and EAP being the most popular. The fastest growing programs include resilience-building, stress awareness, vitality or energy management, and time management/delegation skill building.

But all implementations may not effectively be improving the psychosocial work environment. Less conventional, but rapidly growing programs include workplace environment redesign, job redesign, communication training and health circles (facilitated workplace discussion groups to help improve working environments).

Employers also face stumbling blocks in trying to deal with the issue:

  • What are the direct and indirect costs of stress, depression, substance abuse and burnout among employees? (The Partnership for Workplace Mental Health reports that mental illness and substance abuse cost employers $210.5 billion a year.)
  • Are programs promoting mental health in the workplace cost-effective? (In 2001, Abbott Laboratories achieved a 1.7:1 return on investment by conducting a depression screening program; according to an ongoing study by ValueOptions (now Beacon Health Option, the largest private BHMO in the U.S.), employees who completed at least one session with a mental health provider reported less absenteeism, increased productivity, and substantial improvement in overall mental health.
  • And as employers, do we even want to venture into this sensitive area? (This is a tough one: Many employees are concerned about their privacy being breached or repercussions in terms of their employment security, financial rewards, or career path. An excellent and comprehensive resource for employers is An Employer’s Guide to Behavioral Health Services: A Roadmap and Recommendations for Evaluating, Designing, and Implementing Behavioral Health Services, published by the National Business Group on Health, www.businessgrouphealth.org.)

“It’s important that employers treat mental health issues as they do other issues affecting an individual’s health, and that they do so in a manner that assures employees of their privacy,” says Dr. Sherman. “I’m optimistic. Our survey results show that many employers agree, and with both increased awareness and resources, employers can make a favorable difference in employees’ mental health, and thereby deliver healthier results for the business.”