woman looking stressed at her computer

Health experts tout importance of protecting employees’ mental health

Author: Tammy Binford

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported recently that 12 billion working days are lost every year around the world to depression and anxiety. That results in 1 trillion U.S. dollars per year of lost productivity. The U.S. Surgeon General also sounded the alarm about the state of mental health among workers and in 2022 published a framework for mental health and well-being. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) makes resources available to help employers not only support their employees but also meet their obligations under various laws. So, although the problem is challenging, employers don’t have to feel paralyzed.

Understanding the problem

The WHO reports that 15% of working-age adults were estimated to have a mental disorder in 2019. In the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls mental health disorders “among the most burdensome health concerns in the United States,” and cites 2017 statistics from the American Psychological Association (APA) that 71% of adults reported at least one symptom of stress, such as headache or feeling overwhelmed or anxious.

The CDC reports that poor mental health and stress can negatively affect job performance and productivity, engagement with one’s work, communication with coworkers, and physical capability and daily functioning.

Also, mental illnesses such as depression are associated with higher rates of disability and unemployment, the CDC says, explaining that depression interferes with a person’s ability to complete physical job tasks about 20% of the time and reduces cognitive performance about 35% of the time.

In addition, poor mental health results in higher health care costs. “Even after taking other health risks—like smoking and obesity—into account, employees at high risk of depression had the highest health care costs during the three years after an initial health risk assessment,” information from the CDC says.

What employers can do

The DOL’s mental health at work initiative offers the “4 A’s Checklist” for employers. The A’s refer to awareness, accommodations, assistance, and access.

Among the awareness suggestions, employers are encouraged to offer employees stress management training; train managers and supervisors to recognize and respond to warning signs; and inform employees of available resources such as free relaxation apps or the company’s Employee Assistance Program.

The suggestions for accommodations include allowing sick leave for reasons related to mental health, offering additional unpaid leave for treatment or recovery and/or leaves of absence, and allowing the use of brief, flexible leave (a few hours at a time) for therapy and other related appointments.

Under the assistance category, employers are urged to provide mentoring, coaching, and peer support to employees. Employers are also encouraged to make flexible work arrangements available to employees as a form of proactive accommodation.

As for access, employers are encouraged to assess their health plan’s coverage for mental health treatment. Employers also are urged to give employees easy access to mental health support and care, for example, through an Employee Assistance Program.

The Surgeon General’s published priorities related to mental health in the workplace include “five essentials”: protection from harm; opportunity for growth; connection and community; mattering at work; and work-life harmony.

The WHO says employers, in consultation with stakeholders, “can help improve mental health at work by creating an enabling environment for change.” Among other things, that means employers should exert leadership by integrating mental health at work into relevant policies.

The WHO also advocates an investment in funds and other resources, for example by establishing budgets for actions to improve mental health at work and making mental health services available to lower-resourced enterprises.

Legal obligations

Not only is protecting employees’ mental health good for productivity and employee well-being, but sometimes protections are also mandated by law.

The DOL reminds employers that the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act requires that health benefit plans covering mental health or substance use benefits cannot impose more restrictions on those benefits than what generally applies to comparable medical or surgical benefits.

Also, under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), covered employers must provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to eligible employees with qualifying serious health conditions.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), workers with mental health conditions may qualify for protection against discrimination and harassment at work related to their condition. They also have a legal right to reasonable accommodation that can help them perform their jobs.

Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications.