Mental Illness: The Hidden Workplace Challenge

mental illness

Millennial Women at Particular Risk


Mental illness is a largely misunderstood disease that carries much stigma in society. But it doesn’t just strike the unemployed! Employers are seeing more mental health issues in their workforce than ever before. Employee stress levels continue to rise as more and more employees spend extra hours at work without an increase in pay or benefits. Employers’ stress levels rise, too, as they lose an estimated $52 billion annually in loss of productivity and insurance payments.

Examples of the most common psychological disorders include major depression and dysthymia, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia and an array of personality disorders—with burnout and depression reaching new heights with millennial women in the workforce in particular.

Supervisors, managers, and HR personnel have an ethical and legal responsibility when dealing with employees who may have a mental illness. Risk management personnel must have a firm understanding about mental illness as well as the organization’s role in supporting mentally ill employees. And all employees play a role in ensuring their work culture is one of respect and dignity. Your company’s health is at stake, but so is corporate liability based on the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Mental Illness Stats and Symptoms

In 2016, the EEOC resolved 5,000 disability-based claims dealing with mental health conditions, costing employers approximately $20 million. With the increase in claims came a newly released Guidance on Mental Health Discrimination by the EEOC, which informs employees about their rights under the ADA.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports these mental health statistics:

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5 percent—experiences mental illness in a given year
  • Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4.0 percent—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities
  • 1 percent of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder
  • Only 41 percent of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year

Topping the list? According to Mental Health America (MHA), “Clinical depression has become one of America’s most costly illnesses. Left untreated, depression is as costly as heart disease or AIDS to the U.S. economy, costing over $51 billion in absenteeism from work and lost productivity and $26 billion in direct treatment costs.”

MHA estimates that 3 percent of total short term disability days are due to depressive disorders and in 76 percent of those cases, the employee was female.

Navigating Mental Health in the Workplace

Workplaces can and should play a significant role in minimizing their employees’ mental health risks. The ADA, HIPPA, FMLA and most states’ human/civil rights department regulate how employers deal with employees with mental health problems. Mental illness is a covered disability under the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) and therefore is subject to the law of the ADAAA including the requirement to engage in an interactive process.

But employees aren’t always upfront about their conditions, and privacy laws create challenges for employers who try to determine how serious a situation is, or whether an employee poses a danger. Managers and HR professionals often walk a delicate line in dealing with employees who may have a mental illness or who exhibits signs and symptoms that may indicate an employee needs to be referred for outside assistance such as EAP.

Not sure what to look for? The American Psychiatric Association lists these warning signs of mental illness:

  • Withdrawal —Recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in others
  • Drop in functioning —An unusual drop in functioning, at school, work or social activities, such as quitting sports, failing in school or difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Problems thinking —Problems with concentration, memory or logical thought and speech that are hard to explain
  • Increased sensitivity —Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch; avoidance of over-stimulating situations
  • Apathy —Loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity
  • Feeling disconnected —A vague feeling of being disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings; a sense of unreality
  • Illogical thinking —Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers to understand meanings or influence events; illogical or “magical” thinking typical of childhood in an adult
  • Nervousness —Fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling
  • Unusual behavior –Odd, uncharacteristic, peculiar behavior
  • Sleep or appetite changes —Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or decline in personal care
  • Mood changes —Rapid or dramatic shifts in feelings

Learn How to Take Action

How should HR personnel refer a troubled employee for assistance without violating the ADA? What steps should an organization take to create a stigma-free workplace that is centered on its employees’ physical and mental health? 

(This post first appeared in a ProfEd blog)

By Amy P on 8th November 2017

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