Employee Mental Health: The Diversity Issue No One Talks About
Diversity has become the watch-word in building a modern workforce. As companies strive to overcome traditional workforce diversity issues like adequate gender and racial representation, new concerns arise. Adapting company culture to meet the broad spectrum of human needs presents an almost overwhelming challenge. Although the business community addresses these issues regularly, employee mental health often fails to enter the discussion. To close out Mental Health Awareness Month (May 2017), let’s look at metal health as it impacts diversity.
How, you might ask, is employee mental health a diversity issue?
According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one out of every five adult Americans suffers from some form of mental illness. Yet the stigma surrounding mental illness, in both society and the business community, creates a serious diversity issue. When any group of individuals faces discrimination simply because they are members of that group, diversity is challenged.
Of course, people with mental illness are protected from discrimination by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some companies even offer mental wellness programs to support employees. Yet the fear of being stigmatized, which creates very real barriers to success, prevents many sufferers from revealing their illness and seeking the help they need.
Understanding the Origin and Effect of Stigma
Our society’s portrayal of mental illness in the media, on television, and in film perpetuates the stigma. For many who don’t suffer, their only exposure to mental illness comes in the form of the crazed rapist on Law and Order: SVU or the mad gunman who shoots up a movie theater on CNN. In fact, research reveals 70 percent of references to mental illness in film and television involve violence. These media stories present a narrowly-focused view of mental illness that perpetuates stereotypes. Stereotypes, of course, are the first step toward actual discrimination.
The result is the atmosphere of shame and fear in which persons with mental illness live and work every day. In the 2007 Behavioral Risk Factor Survey from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), only 24.6 percent of adults suffering from symptoms of mental illness believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness. Thus, many people with mental illness deny symptoms and delay treatment for fear of being denied normal relationships, including employment.
The Stigma in the Workplace
Thanks to the stereotypes in our society, even the most common symptoms of mental illness have become stigmatized. The most compassionate business leader can fall prey to these stereotypes. Individuals suffering from depression or anxiety disorders are often characterized as timid, fearful people who aren’t go-getters. Less perceptive leaders might even see them as lazy, uninspired, or lacking motivation
How much does this stigma affect the workplace? Again, the ADA prohibits direct employment discrimination against those with mental illness. But that only protects those whose illness does not impact their performance. To be honest, many of the symptoms of illnesses like depression can negatively impact job performance. This is especially true if the individual is not receiving treatment or support. Yet, employees who reveal their illness, even when treated, remain less likely to be placed in leadership positions, less likely to be included on teams, and far less likely to be entrusted with vital projects regardless of their performance. Employees with mental illness often face a choice of succumbing to their symptoms because they don’t seek treatment or accepting and succumbing to the stigma itself.
The Effectiveness of Employee Mental Health Programs
Many companies are beginning to establish health and wellness policies that include mental health programs. These programs, however, remain limited to eliminating workplace related causes of mental stress. Companies embracing new sensibilities regarding employee health and wellness know a mentally-healthy workforce is more productive. The aim is to reduce mental stress on the job and thereby increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and lower medical costs. They do little to support those who are already mentally ill.
While these programs may help a mentally ill employee avoid triggers, they don’t treat or support the underlying cause… the illness itself. Treatment, of course, is not the employer’s responsibility. Becuase of this, though it is difficult to hear, the employer’s responsibility to their own success is often best achieved by subtle discrimination.
A Global Economic Loss
Employee mental health issues are the number one, health-related cause of lost productivity. That alone impacts the bottom line. In addition, with nearly one-fifth of adult workers suffering from mental illness, a large portion of the global workforce remains unutilized or under-utilized. Many mentally ill adults, frustrated by the stigma, or by the challenges of remaining silent, eventually resort to disability benefits and other government assistance. They remove themselves from the workforce entirely and, in fact, become a drain on the economy.
Perhaps more significantly, while there is no direct evidence linking intelligence with mental illness, it cannot be denied that some of the great, creative minds in history suffered some degree of mental or emotional difficulty. A recent study conducted in Sweden showed a direct correlation between straight “A” students, particularly in the humanities, and an increased risk for depression and Bi-polar disorder. Though the scientific community fails to agree on the issue, it makes you wonder how much human potential remains untapped.
Removing the Stigma and Embracing the Potential
Tapping the potential of mentally ill adults begins with treatment and support. Yet, as we’ve already seen, the stigma surrounding mental illness prevents many from seeking treatment. The first step, therefore, involves removing the stigma and abandoning stereotypes… at least in the workplace. Conscientious business leaders can take steps to combat this growing concern, including the following:
- Educate employees about mental illness, particularly in the C-suite
- Raise awareness regarding the challenges faced by the mentally ill in the workplace
- Be supportive and inclusive
- Provide access to treatment options
- Employ motivational techniques that encourage treatment
- Support a culture of openness regarding mental health
Workforce diversity is about more than just race, gender, and religion. It’s about embracing those who are different in any way. In many ways, the human mind is still a mystery. What is clear, however, is that dismissing or under-utilizing a full one-fifth of the workforce because of potential employee mental health issues is like throwing away a vast, untapped source of human potential.