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Mental Illness Sidelining Workers, Challenging Employers To Act

Mental illness is taking its toll on the American workforce. Benefits providers and disability insurance carriers are paying attention.

One of the top causes of worker disability in the U.S. is mental illness, with 62% of missed work days attributed to mental health conditions. In addition, 42% of employees who have a mental health issue say they have come to work with suicidal feelings.

Unum released these findings as part of their report, “Strong Minds At Work,” which shows the prevalence of mental illness in the workplace, and the factors triggering mental health issues. Among the key findings:

  • Of workers diagnosed with a mental health disorder, 67% suffer from anxiety disorder and 66% have been diagnosed with depression.
  • More than half (55%) of working adults said their employer did not have, or they were unsure whether their employer had, a specific program, initiative or policy in place to address mental health.
  • 62% of employees said they experienced a period where they felt mentally unwell.

Despite these percentages, workers are often afraid to seek help, the Unum study showed.

More than 60% of employees believe there’s a social stigma in the workplace toward colleagues who have mental health issues, and 81% said they believe that stigma is keeping employees from seeking help.

Nearly one-third (32%) of workers with mental health issues have not told anyone at work, 28% have told their manager, 25% have disclosed to coworkers other than their manager, 20% disclosed on their employment application and 19% told their human resource department.

Nearly 40% of those who did not disclose their mental health issue said they feared discrimination or harassment by colleagues. More than one-quarter said they were ashamed to disclose their mental health issue.

What is triggering mental health issues at work?

“What we found in the research is that the key issues for mental health issues are bucketed into health, finances and work,” said Michelle Jackson, assistant vice president of regional market development at Unum. “Somebody’s own health condition can trigger a mental health issue. Finances are a big bucket — 67% said finances have triggered a mental health issue. And then we also see the health of a loved one, job satisfaction and personal relationships factoring in to mental health.”

Mental Health Keeping Workers Off The Job

Nearly one-third of the year — 112 days. That’s the average length of time employees are out of work on disability because of a mental health condition, according to research from The Standard.

The disability insurance provider released the results of a study that showed employee absence and disability are challenging employers in a tight job market. Mental illness is a major reason why employees are off the job, the study found.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of employers with more than 2,500 workers and 38% of employers overall reported they receive requests to accommodate mental health conditions at least once a year.

In addition, The Standard’s study showed that the two biggest challenges in dealing with mental health issues in the workplace are that workers hide their conditions and managers don’t know how to recognize them.

Meanwhile, Unum’s study found workers with mental health issues displayed a high rate of presenteeism — lost productivity and performance due to employees showing up at work when they’re sick, exhausted or too distracted by their personal issues to focus on their tasks. More than two-thirds of those workers said they have been at work while feeling stressed, depressed or upset and have been less productive because of their feelings.

Among workers with mental health issues, 63% have taken time off for their issue, and nearly a third (28%) of these gave a reason other than their mental health issue for their absence.

The majority of those (54%) who stepped away from the workplace for a while used paid time off or vacation days. Others used Family and Medical Leave Act or unpaid leave (27%), floating holidays (6%) or they did not log the time (12%). Seventy percent did not inform their manager that a mental health issue was the reason they were out.

Of those with mental health issues, 46% have taken an extended amount of time off work (more than a week) for reasons directly related to their condition. Of these, 11% did not want to return to work and 36% said they knew they needed to go back but were hesitant to return. The Unum study said this illustrates an opportunity to make these employees feel supported in their return to work.

What Can Brokers Do?

Brokers can help employers and their workers navigate health issues and financial stressors through the right benefits package, and by educating HR professionals and employees about the mental health resources that are available, Jackson said.

“There are multiple factors that are going to result in stress and somebody being absent from work,” she said. “So if a benefits consultant is approaching an employer, they need to understand that the employer is trying to meet the needs of the employee in a number of ways —typically, medical, dental, vision, ancillary benefits and then you get into the scope of disability, illness and life insurance.”

So understanding that financial stress and health issues are two of the biggest triggers for mental health issues, if we can start that conversation that benefits can help to solve those stressors, benefits can be a solution to those stressors that are triggering mental health issues at work.”

Employers have resources available to help workers with mental health issues. More than 90% said they have an employee assistance program in the workplace. But only 38% of workers said they are aware of such a program.

The benefits consultant who can connect the mental health discussion with the benefits discussion will be seen as a solution partner to their employer clients, Jackson said.

“If we know that mental illness and mental stress are prevalent, and we know workers are coming to work feeling that way, we think we’ve done a great job of developing resources for them,” she added, “but clearly there’s a disconnect with the understanding of what those benefits are.”

Susan Rupe is managing editor for InsuranceNewsNet. She formerly served as communications director for an insurance agents' association and was an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor. Follow her on Twitter @INNsusan. Contact her at [email protected].


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