When web developer Madalyn Parker emailed her team to say she was taking time off to care for her mental health and posted her boss’s positive response on Twitter, the news went viral. Suddenly, everyone was talking about mental health in the workplace. Now, we need to go from talking about it to doing something to help.
For years, we have used the term “mental health day” to mean we need time to recharge our batteries and take a break. We know that workplace stress is rampant and costly, in both human and financial terms. One in three Americans is chronically stressed on the job, and job stress costs U.S. industry more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity and medical, legal and insurance costs.
Stressed workers are disengaged workers, and that’s not good for business. Disengaged workers are more likely to be absent, have more accidents and make more errors than those who are actively engaged in their work. Moreover, organizations with higher employee engagement scores are more profitable and have higher share prices than those with poorly engaged employees.
We all feel stressed from time to time, but what Ms. Parker’s story points to is the often-unacknowledged reality that one in five American adults struggles with mental illness — including anxiety and depression — and 40 percent of them take time off from work because of it. Absenteeism because of depression alone costs U.S. employers $23 billion annually.
When Ms. Parker first expressed concerns in 2014 about how to talk to her employer about her mental health problems, she was advised to keep quiet or risk being fired. Sadly, she is not alone in her concern. A RAND study found that more than two-third of Californians who experienced psychological distress would hide their condition from their coworkers. One in five would delay treatment for fear of someone finding out about their problem.
Their fears are not unfounded. More than half of Americans report they don’t want to work with a person who has a mental illness or to have them marry into their family.
So when Ms. Parker’s employer at Olark Live Chat thanked her for helping “cut through the stigma,” he was lauded for his progressive views, and the National Council for Behavioral Health echoes the praise. Mental health is part of health, and taking a day off to care for your mental health should be no different from taking a day off to care for a cold or sprained ankle.
Reducing stigma is only part of the answer. For individuals to get the help they need, we must be educated about how to help one another. Your office probably has a defibrillator, and you may have received training in how to use it. You know how to summon emergency help for a physical ailment.
The Mental Health First Aid at Work training program can teach you how to recognize and respond to mental health challenges in the workplace. It provides an action plan to assess risk, provide reassurance and information, and encourage appropriate professional help. It’s been called “CPR for the mind.”
Mental Health First Aid at Work can be the linchpin in creating a mentally healthy workplace. In fact, a Gallup poll showed that employees value workplace well-being more highly than material benefits. At the end of the day, good health is good business, and good health includes good mental health.
In May we launched a campaign called “Be the Difference.” We tell people that if you know what to do and what to say, you can be the difference in the life of someone experiencing a mental health challenge. Mental Health First Aid at Work can help employers be the difference for their employees.
Linda Rosenberg (Twitter: @linda_rosenberg) is the president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health.