HR Management & Compliance

Making Mental Wellness a Workplace Priority

It just doesn’t make any sense. Mention to someone that you have a chronic condition like high cholesterol or heart disease, and they will shower you with empathy, offers of assistance, and maybe even a recipe for a healthy snack. Mention that you suffer from mental illness, and the same person is just as likely to find a quick excuse to exit the conversation.

mental healthIt’s Time to End the Stigma

Did you know that depression affects more American adults than diabetes? The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that in 2014, nearly 44 million adults suffered from mental illness, representing 18.1% of all U.S. adults. For that same year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported 29.1 million people of all ages, or 9.3% of the total U.S. population, as having diabetes.  Despite the fact that there are many effective treatments available, the stigma associated with mental illness continues.

Most mental health patients are able to manage their symptoms and to lead productive, happy lives. I should know: At the age of 20, I checked myself into a psychiatric institution, the culmination of a rocky childhood in a dysfunctional home. I had just barely earned a high school diploma, and there wasn’t a 4-year college anywhere that would admit me. By the time I reached 24, my abusive father threw me out of the house. I lived at the YMCA and a boarding house with other transients, supporting myself by cleaning bathrooms at the local motor inn.

With ongoing treatment, I was able to turn my life around. I focused on earning an education, beginning where I could—with an open-admission community college—and kept at it until I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University, and then with honors from a Columbia University master’s program. I worked my way through various posts in the healthcare industry and a 49, was appointed President and CEO of a major medical center.

Let’s Start with the Workplace

We spend a lot of time at our workplace—at least 8 hours a day, and for most of us, considerably more. Work is where we get most of our nonfamily social interaction. Yet it is where we seem to be least capable of dealing honestly with mental health.

I’m not suggesting we should stand on our desks and shout, “Hey! I have clinical depression”! But consider how many workplaces have started on-site fitness programs and regularly hold health fairs. Why not on-site guided meditation groups and a mental health table at those health fairs?

It is remarkable how few people seek help for their depression. The CDC estimates that only 29% of people with depression reported contacting a health professional in the last year. This is a shame, because most health insurance plans include mental health coverage.

Unfortunately, the stigma that still surrounds mental illness discourages too many people from seeking help. I know this from personal experience too. I have taken great care over the years to hide my depression and anxiety. I was afraid, and at times rightly so, that open knowledge of it would hurt my career. Keeping that secret for so long only complicated my recovery.

The simple act of including a depression screening at your next health fair will bring mental health into focus as a health issue. Company-wide education can occur via internal communication channels—web, newsletters, event boards, etc. Lunchtime education series can include speakers from the mental health care community.

Consider special training for the HR staff, to help them better understand the most common mental illnesses. Taken together, all of these relatively small actions will reduce the fear and ignorance that surround mental health.

The Benefits of a Mentally Healthy Work Environment

If you think there is nothing to be gained by promoting mental wellness in your workplace, think again. The CDC reports that an estimated 200 million workdays are lost each year due to depression, at a cost of $17 to $44 billion. People with untreated depression, anxiety disorder, and a host of other mental illnesses are likely to have difficulty functioning at their jobs.

Given the statistics, there is a very high probability that someone you work with is struggling to keep pace with their job, and with their life. When you are struggling with depression and anxiety, otherwise straightforward decisions and tasks become overwhelming and the tough decisions and difficult tasks become impossible. This is bad for you, bad for your employees, and bad for your company.

It is time to recognize that depression is not a character flaw. It can be the result of life trauma, loss or grief, and/or biochemistry. It is also time to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the availability of very effective treatments for a wide variety of mental illnesses.

People who suffer from other illnesses and conditions are encouraged to take advantage of available treatments for that illness, right? The workplace holds great potential as an environment for promoting acceptance of mental illness, and for encouraging those who suffer to seek relief from their symptoms.

Dennis C. Miller, author of Moppin’ Floors to CEO, is a nationally recognized strategic leadership coach with over 30 years of experience. The former CEO of Somerset Medical Center and Healthcare Foundation, Miller now works with leaders of nonprofit organizations who want a more motivated and cohesive board, inspirational leadership, and a more engaged strategic vision with greater levels of achievement and measurable results. Miller is an expert in board governance, leadership development and succession planning. He works with organizations across the country, small or large, local or global. Learn more about Miller and his work at

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