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The workplace stigma of mental illness

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Like a lot of firms, tech company Buffer has a variety of Slack channels. It's doubtful, though, that many have one that replicates Buffer's conduit for employees to discuss their mental health issues. That's where founder and chief executive Joel Gascoigne posts about his therapy appointments. Another employee shared that he was asking his doctor for an anti-anxiety medication, while a third broadcast his intent to start counseling sessions.

Buffer, a maker of social media management products whose workforce is entirely remote, prides itself on a culture of transparency, and that includes employees talking about all facets of their lives.

"It's hard to be the first to talk about mental health," says Courtney Seiter, director of people at Buffer. "To have someone like Joel say he's going to a therapist and what he's working on paves the way for someone else to say something about what they're going through."

Many companies are striving for at least some of that candor as they seek to increase awareness about mental illness and encourage more employees to seek treatment. Suicide rates nationally are climbing, workers' stress and depression levels are rising, and addiction—especially to opioids—continues to bedevil employers. Such conditions are driving up health care costs at double the rate of illnesses overall, according to Aetna Behavioral Health.

Starting workplace conversations about behavioral health is challenging. Such conditions are often seen as a personal failing rather than a medical condition.

A firm such as Buffer likely has an easier time addressing mental health issues than other companies given its employee demographics. Its founder is 32, which is also the average age of its 87 employees. As a Millennial, he's part of a generation whose members, along with those of Generation Z, are accustomed to broadcasting their lives on social media. Both generations also grew up in an era when children and teens were regularly diagnosed and medicated for conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and therefore don't have the same negative associations with mental illness as their older counterparts. In fact, 62 percent of Millennials say they're comfortable discussing their mental health issues, almost twice as many as the 32 percent of Baby Boomers who expressed such ease, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

"[Younger people] just lay things out on the line," says Selvi Springer, assistant director of medical accommodations at EY, a London-based professional services firm, which started a campaign to raise awareness of mental illness last year.

EY is not alone. Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the New Brunswick, N.J.-based pharmaceutical giant; Cigna, the Bloomfield, Conn.-based health insurer; and Garmin International, an Olathe, Kan.-based tech company, are among those with specific mental health programs for their employees. Approaches differ, though tactics include bulking up mental health services and teaching managers how to spot signs of behavioral illness. Providing access to therapists through nontraditional means such as texting is also a popular and pragmatic strategy, since the current psychiatrist shortage can make finding a professional for in-person counseling difficult.

The Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation reports that 77 percent of counties in the U.S. don't have enough psychiatrists. Reasons for the shortage include low reimbursement rates, burnout and administrative burdens. And according to a survey by Mercer, about 75 percent of employers with workforces of 5,000 people or more say access to behavioral health care is a concern in some or all of their locations. Fifty percent of all employers say they have enhanced their employee assistance programs, while just over one-third have implemented a tele-therapy program.

Increasing Costs, Suicide Rates and Stress Drive Change

"Employers are getting more savvy on addressing mental health," says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation in Washington, D.C. "They understand the direct and indirect health care costs."

Mental health expenses jumped by more than 10 percent annually over five years, compared with an annual increase of 5 percent for other medical costs, according to a study conducted by Aetna Behavioral Health. Treating depression alone costs $110 billion annually, and half of that cost is shouldered by employers. Companies spent $2.6 billion on opioid addiction in 2016—an eightfold increase since 2004, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported last year.

Meanwhile, more people are taking their own lives. Suicide rates rose 33 percent, to 14 per 100,000 people up from 10.5 per 100,000 people, from 1999 through 2017, the last year for which figures were available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One reason: Many younger workers are stressed, depressed or anxious. In fact, the proportion of workers with symptoms of depression rose 18 percent from 2014 to 2018. Among members of Generation Z and Millennials, depression symptoms increased at an even faster rate, jumping 39 percent and 24 percent, respectively, according to New York City-based technology company Happify Health.

Most people's reluctance to discuss mental illness belies the diseases' prevalence. Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness every year, the APA reports.

Such diseases cause changes in emotions, thinking or behavior that can lead to problems carrying out basic functions. Experts believe that mental illnesses are caused by genetic, social and environmental factors, or some combination. Anxiety and depression are among the most common conditions.

"We want people to understand that mental illness is not a character flaw," says Craig Kramer, a mental health awareness ambassador at J&J. "People should bring casseroles to people with mental illness just like they do for people with cancer."

Employees Still Reluctant to Divulge Problems

In the workplace, mental illness remains a largely taboo subject.

A majority of employees—68 percent—worry that reaching out about a mental health issue could negatively impact their job security, according to a 2019 study by Businessolver, a West Des Moines, Iowa-based health benefits administrator. Although 50 percent of employees overall (and 60 percent of Millennial employees) reported having had a mental health lapse, only one-third of those employees reached out to their employer.

The stigma may be dissipating, however, as more people share their stories.

Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie was diagnosed with mild depression five years ago, a revelation he made public for the first time in June at the Society for Human Resource Management 2019 Annual Conference & Exposition. He plans to launch a self-help toolkit next year "to help people live their best lives."

"I believe you cannot take care of others until you take care of yourself," Mycoskie said at the conference.

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete in history, has discussed his problems with depression and is featured in an ad campaign for a text therapy company. Britain's Prince William raised his behavioral health struggles and the importance of seeking help at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year. His brother, Prince Harry, is working with Oprah Winfrey on a documentary series about mental health. And last year's suicides of chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade highlighted the need to talk about and treat such conditions before tragedy strikes.

"We're in a moment," Kramer says, "and we can't let it pass."

Covered by the Law

Mental health conditions are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That means employers must make reasonable accommodations for workers with such disorders to perform their responsibilities. However, employees must be willing to divulge their need for modifications.

Myriad laws protect medical privacy, and experts say individuals don't have to provide extensive details about their conditions.

"We don't need to know that you go for treatment or you're on a certain amount of drugs," says Jill Vaslow, managing director of global benefits and well-being at Cigna. "But the more we know, the more we can do."

Supervisors might think someone who's regularly late for work and misses deadlines is lazy. But when managers know that the individual is dealing with a mental health issue, they may be able to adjust the employee's schedule or allow the person to work from home, for example.

"If we don't know anything, we just know that you aren't doing your job," Vaslow says.

Companies are training their employees to be sensitive to signs of mental illness, such as noticing changes in someone's behavior. If a typically stellar employee's performance declines, supervisors might reach out to the individual to discuss the shift and remind the person of services provided by the company, such as an employee assistance program (EAP).

These aren't easy conversations to have, though employers are learning that they're necessary.

Sometimes employees get the discussions started. Kramer became a mental health awareness advocate after his daughter tried to kill herself as she struggled with an eating disorder. When he began sharing his story with colleagues, Kramer learned that many had their own experiences with behavioral health. Those discussions led to a groundswell to find ways to help employees and their families address mental health concerns.

In 2017, J&J created an employee resource group for mental health that now has about 1,500 members, or "diplomats," who provide resources to educate and support colleagues coping with behavioral ailments. Many have been trained on how to spot signs of problems among their staffs and to broach the topic with those who may be hurting. This year, J&J's human resource professionals and managerial-level staff will also learn how to spot potential signals and provide help.

"Our employees came out of the woodwork to help fix the system," Kramer says.

Support Systems

Nearly five years ago, an employee at Denver-based construction company RK Mechanical took his own life, shocking the company and pushing it to highlight the importance of mental health to its workers.

"We chose to make it a priority," says Gretchen Meyer, vice president of human resources for the firm. Meyer notes that such discussions are especially important in the male-dominated construction industry. That's because men are typically less likely to discuss their health and feelings than women. In addition, many construction workers are former military service members who may struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder tied to their combat experiences.

RK took a multipronged approach to emphasizing the importance of mental health, including hiring two wellness counselors and promoting the use of, a website that uses humor to educate men about mental health and directs them to further resources.

The company also added members to its safety team and taught them that checking for security goes beyond just physical measures such as ensuring that equipment is functioning correctly. They take time to get to know the workers personally, asking questions about their lives and being sensitive to changes in their demeanors.

"We want the security officials engaged," Meyer says. "We want them out there saying, 'How are you today?' 'How can I help?' "

RK schedules regular lunch discussions about mental health topics, and signs around the office remind employees about the EAP. Recently, the company added a service that allows workers to text a counselor 24 hours a day if they need to talk.

"You need different approaches," Meyer says. "You want to give people as many ways to get help as possible."

Finding the right method to deliver the message is key, as Garmin's leaders discovered. When it was preparing to launch a campaign highlighting mental health in 2016, the company found that the topic trended poorly with some employees, especially Baby Boomers, says Haley Prophet, senior well-being specialist at the firm. "They said it had a stigma," she explains.

So Garmin opted to focus on the same issues using a banner of "resilience." For example, the staff developed "Adventures in Resilience: The Amazing Workbook," which uses a graphic-novel format to discuss mental health. The overwhelmingly male staff loved it. Garmin also holds regular discussions on mental health topics that concentrate on the science behind the conditions. "We talk about what's physically going on in the brain and the body," Prophet says. She adds that the approach especially appeals to the company's engineers, who make up 65 percent of the workforce.

At the mental health discussions, Prophet says, some employees will get up and tell stories about their own conditions.

"We're seeing more discussions and a culture shift," she says. "People are standing up to be advocates and saying they're not ashamed to talk about mental illness."

This article courtesy of The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

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