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A wake-up call for mental health


The startling news headlines have somewhat slowed since last month’s tragic Germanwings airliner crash which resulted in the deaths of all aboard. By now you are familiar with the story which repeatedly focused on the pilot’s mental state and diagnosis of depression prior to the tragedy. In light of this tragedy, new dialogue is emerging and many have begun to talk about the need for employers to reassess their policies, accommodations, and behavioral health programs to better promote mental well-being in the workplace.

The interchange between mental health concerns and tragic events is complex. When the media or others suggest mental illness is the root cause of violence, it stigmatizes those living healthy and productive lives.  It is misleading, for instance, to depict a person diagnosed with depression, as violent. The vast majority of people with a mental illness are not violent. And according to the CDC, only 25% of people who have mental health-related symptoms feel that others are understanding towards them.

Increasing awareness of and access to holistic healing and treatment, inclusive of physical and mental well-being, is critically important for health and productivity of a workforce.

We know that one in four Americans will experience some type of diagnosis related to mental health. A Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index estimates absenteeism from workers diagnosed with depression costs employers an estimated $23 billion annually in lost productivity.  Many argue mental illnesses have an even greater impact on presenteeism by way of slowed productivity and workforce stress.

Within the workplace, the pendulum has swung too far towards “don't ask, don't tell.”  Workplace stigma discourages employees from disclosing diagnosis and symptoms for fear of ramifications from their company and peers, and employers seem to not want to know.  There needs to be a balance between workplace safety and privacy combined with a culture of health and offering support for employees that need it.

There are certain industries such as the airline, nuclear, and transportation where monitoring of mental health status for employees in certain jobs is performed, but even then there are stringent guidelines.  The Americans with Disabilities Act includes mental health issues in the non-discrimination guidelines which has furthered awareness of accommodations.  The Germanwings tragedy reinforces the need and opportunity to treat mental health with the same importance as physical health. Where I think we need to look is toward a more open dialogue in the workplace that frees both employees and employers from fear.

This current tragic event should spur discussion about how employers can make it safer for employees to discuss behavioral health issues. Rather than making this a negative and driving people deeper into the shadows for fear of repercussion, employers have an opportunity to improve benefit solutions.  Consider evolving wellness, behavioral health, and employee assistance programs, with leave of absence, disability and workers’ compensation. Integrate these programs with group health and wellness programs as key components with equal importance of physical health.  Developing programs which allow and encourage employees to come forward and discuss mental health symptoms, diagnosis, and well-being in a safe environment is a huge step forward.  Creating a culture of health and breaking down mental health stigma is not easy, but with leadership on board there is significant opportunity for improvement.

At Sedgwick we are prepared to help you look at and build programs that can effect change for a healthier workforce. Your employees are your most valuable resource and working together we know it is possible to begin to achieve greater balance. Last year we posted a series of blogs on why employers needed to pay more attention to stressed out employees. I encourage you to go back and review these for some great information.

I am also excited that in May Sedgwick will embark on an initiative to look deeper at how we all can improve behavioral health and well-being in the workforce.  Our initiative will bring together the nation's leaders in mental health policy and treatment, along with employers to address the current need for a pre-disability mental health model.  This is such an important and complex topic and it is timely and necessary in order to reduce workplace stigma, build a resilient workforce, and to improve health and productivity of the employees and employers.

How do you feel about bringing the mental health discussion to the forefront at work? Please share your thoughts and ideas and let’s begin a health dialogue as employers on mental health.

Kimberly George, Senior Vice President, Corporate Development, M&A, and Healthcare

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