Guest blog: Yes Virginia, there is mental illness in the workplace

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

By Stephanie Mitchell Hughes

At the outset, I must disclose that I am an attorney and former employer defense counsel. I have also lived with depression since I was at least 15 years old. This post was not born out of my experience as an employer defense counsel and does not constitute legal advice. Rather, I seek to raise awareness and respectfully disrupt how mental illness is treated in the workplace. While I do not intend to step on any toes, if I do so, just say "Ouch."

Wellness programs in the workplace are all the rage. These programs promote physical fitness, nutrition, weight management, stress reduction and even sufficient sleep as the keys to a healthy and productive workforce. Though well-intentioned, many of these same wellness programs do not directly address mental illness. Mental illness does not exist within its own silo. It becomes part of everything it touches and has a tangible economic impact on employers. For example, according to Mental Health America, clinical depression costs employers $51 billion dollars in missed time from work and lost productivity. The Harvard Mental Health Letter found that mental illness costs employers in the form of attrition, job related accidents and increased liability. The failure to acknowledge mental illness undercuts everything that wellness programs seek to achieve-a well-rounded, healthy and productive workforce.

Mental illness is still a taboo subject-particularly in the workplace. The responsibility for handling this highly-sensitive issue is largely left to employee assistance programs. Mental Health of America found that depression is amongst the top three workplace issues addressed by employee assistance professionals followed only by stress and family crises. When properly supported, these programs are an outstanding resource for employees struggling with a variety of issues including mental illness. However, though operated under the veil of confidentiality, many employee assistance programs are viewed as an extension of the employer. This is particularly true if a climate of distrust and dysfunction hangs over the work environment.

According to Mental Health of America, in a work environment rife with distrust and dysfunction, employees living with a mental illness will not seek help from employee assistance out of fear that their illness will be disclosed to the employer and used against them. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control found that only 25 percent of individuals living with a mental illness believe that people are empathetic about their condition. Given such distrust and dysfunction, an employer may not learn that an employee is struggling with a mental illness until the proverbial horse has left the barn. At that point, employers can only react as circumstances evolve.

I understand the reluctance to openly embrace mental illness in the workplace. After all, employers are operating a business and employees are at work to work. The reality is that employees living with a mental illness are at every level of the workplace-from the CEO to the security guard. Yet far too often employers find themselves creating policies within the context of a workplace crisis born out of a mental health emergency. Workplace policies that evolve out of crisis are often ineffective and only perpetuate the fear, shame and stigma associated with having a mental illness.

So how does an employer begin to address mental illness within its workplace? Mental illness within the workplace must be holistically addressed with input from all interested stakeholders including employees. Before an intervention to address mental illness can be implemented, the work environment must be assessed and any dysfunction or mistrust resolved. At that point, employers can engage and raise awareness amongst employees through mental illness awareness screenings, removing barriers that employees encounter when attempting to access mental health services and training supervisors on how to recognize and respond to an employee who is displaying symptoms of mental distress.

Employees bring their whole selves into the workplace. That said, employers should want employees to bring their best selves. After all, if the workplace is not healthy, employees will not be healthy. An employee struggling with a mental illness needs a safe space to recover. Employers who acknowledge mental illness and create that safe and supportive space will reap bountiful results. My mantra for my own mental illness is #noapology, #nosurrender, #noretreat.

Stephanie Mitchell Hughes is an attorney, writer, speaker and respectful disrupter. She writes and speaks about working women, healthy workplaces, living with depression and overcoming adversity. Follow Stephanie on Twitter @srmhughes.