As more public figures, such as Beyonce and Britain’s Prince Harry, openly discuss their struggles with mental health, more attention is being focused on a growing global issue. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of The World Health Organization (WHO), has called on people to encourage conversations about depression and “scale up” mental health services. On top of this, awareness campaigns such as the WHO’s “World Mental Health Day” aim to destigmatize the global issue of mental health and emotional distress.
As well as the toll on someone’s overall health, emotional distress also has other implications: Depression magnified by social isolation is set to be the world’s costliest disease burden by 2030, placing an enormous pressure on primary care providers and caregivers, as well as employers. In the U.S. alone, depression and anxiety, including co-occurring conditions, cost businesses $210.5 billion every year.
The “emotional wellbeing” or “emotional fitness” of people is becoming an increasingly important issue for employers.
The language used can be equally important if we are to help reduce the stigma surrounding the issue. Stephanie Pronk, Senior Vice President, Health Transformation, Aon, explains the emergence of the term: “‘Emotional fitness’ is a new term that is intended to bring together typical aspects of physical fitness with the mental and emotional aspects of human performance.”
By adopting the term “emotional fitness,” people will be more able to see that there are ways to improve their own – just as they would with physical fitness.
It’s forecast that by 2020 the prevalence of mental health issues – such as emotional disorders and substance dependence – will surpass all physical diseases as the leading cause of disability in the U.S. The cost of mental health issues is also increasingly dramatically. Globally, depression will become more widespread and, magnified by social isolation, it will become the most expensive disease in the world by 2030. Today, anxiety disorders cost the U.S. economy more than $42 billion per year.
In an average week in the U.S., 5 million people miss work due to stress and an estimated 4 million work days are lost due to depression. At the same time, 800,000 people visit a doctor because of a mental health problem, while 5 million prescriptions are written for anti-depressants. All of these factors are having a profound effect on the workplace.
Identifying employees in need of support and then providing access to care is of paramount importance in maintaining the overall health of your workforce.
The 6 Key Triggers Of Emotional Distress
The root causes of emotional distress lie in the everyday challenges we all face. Eventually, with enough time and intensity, emotional distress can escalate and develop into overwhelming anxiety or an inability to handle those difficult situations everyone has to deal with every day. Rod Hart, Vice President, Health Transformation, Aon, outlines six primary triggers that lead to emotional distress in the workplace:
Barriers To Progress
Individuals suffering from mental health and emotional distress issues still face the challenge of not getting them diagnosed. Regardless of progress made to help destigmatize these conditions, the negative connotations of mental health still exist if someone admits they have a problem: Some don’t want to appear weak and worry that it could cost them their jobs or damage their relationships with co-workers. However, this stigma often goes both ways. Employers too can be overly cautious about overstepping employees’ personal boundaries when it comes to reaching out to help.
“A big part of treating mental health is normalizing it,” explains Hart. “Because of the stigma, there’s a lot of concern on the part of front-line managers as well as those in ‘human resources’ roles – such as HR benefits managers and HR generalists – who fear they could make the situation worse.”
Often, an organization isn’t prepared to deal with individuals struggling with mental health related issues. Hart explains: “In recent surveys, we’ve seen close to 60 percent of supervisors and managers saying they don’t have the skillsets to begin to address mental health or emotion-related issues – especially as it relates to workplace challenges.”
Investing In Mental Health: The Business Case
Perhaps the strongest business case for investment in employees’ emotional wellbeing is the boost it gives to productivity and the impact it has on costs. Medical expenses for an employee with depression are 48 percent higher than one without, equating to an average of 5.6 productive work hours each week – close to 15 percent of a 40-hour working week.
Although absenteeism due to mental health and emotional distress is an issue, even “presenteeism” – when employees are at their desks but are disengaged and unproductive – can hit productivity. “If you compare turnover of an employer who has an ‘emotionally fit’ workplace strategy in place with an average employer, there’s a 30 percent difference,” says Hart, “indicating that an investment in emotional wellbeing does impact performance.”
When the direct and indirect impacts of mental health issues are considered, it becomes clearer that investing in employee mental and emotional wellbeing pays off.
According to Hart, some practical steps employers can take to help promote better mental wellness in their workplaces include:
Pronk elaborates: “Whereas it may be true that work and the work environment may generate stress and emotional health concerns for workers, it also seems that the workplace can have a positive effect when emotional fitness becomes a focal point to bring about positive impacts.”
If the result of positive actions is to remove or reduce stress in the workplace, benefits can be seen across the organization – including an increase in employee engagement and productivity. Long-term, a happier and less-stressful working environment may even contribute to the overall improvement of your employees’ physical health.
“…if I have depression, very few places have an accommodation policy for that. And yet we know that the longer somebody is off work, the less chance that they will actually return in a timely way, if at all” – Louise Bradley, CEO, Mental Health Commission of Canada
“People need to feel at ease raising issues at work, and trust that they will be supported. Training for line managers needs to cover how to have these kinds of sensitive discussions with members of their team and where to signpost them to help if needed” – Dr Jill Miller, Public Policy Adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, U.K.