Stress, mental health issues and workplace injuries and illnesses – a look at the impact

June 25, 2014

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The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) research paper on Stress in the workplace highlights the costly impact of stress and mental health issues on workplace injuries and illness, including higher risk of injury, medical treatment, lost time from work and presenteeism. We also know that mental health issues, including depression, have been found to have a much higher impact on presenteeism than other chronic illnesses.[1] Mental health disorders often have symptoms that are not readily apparent; employees may attend work, but their underlying health condition affects their ability to do the work or even distracts them from safe work behavior.

Many employers already offer health management benefits that provide employees with support for mental health and emotional well-being overall through employee benefit programs. This is partly because of other research, like that of UIC, demonstrating a strong relationship between these health issues and employee presenteeism, lost time from work, overall productivity and risk of injury/illness.

UIC researchers identified three key areas for employer initiatives. With National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day approaching on June 27, we would like to build on their recommendations by offering some thoughts for additional actions employers can take – using available resources and medical/disability data – to mitigate the impact of lost productivity and presenteeism from stress and other mental health illnesses. We also encourage employers to develop initiatives that cross internal silos to share information and health intervention strategies for occupational and non-occupational injury and illness. Integration can vastly improve results in addressing this issue.


  • Develop a broader organizational initiative to not only develop managers who are supportive of employees at work, but also to create a strong organizational culture – with C-suite leadership – that is supportive of employee health and well-being 24/7.
  • Ensure employee access to wellness and prevention offerings such as: employee assistance programs (EAP), disease management, personal financial counseling, stress management and resiliency training. Make sure managers are familiar with them and can talk to employees about using the services. For parents, services like same-day care services for sick children and flexible work schedules can be valuable stress alleviators that increase attendance as well as attention to work tasks.
  • Other stress reducers in the work environment can include offering exercise classes, group walks or walking contests and other social/community events that engage employees in building positive, friendly relationships with colleagues. Having community and shared experiences can reduce perceived stress and isolation.

Screening and supportive services for high-risk individuals

  • Use an employee health risk assessment (HRA). This self-assessment, offered to all employees, is a common employee benefits tool for identifying other individual and population risks. Many companies use employee incentives (cash, gift certificates or health premium reduction) to encourage high engagement levels.
    • HRA individual results are usually kept confidential from the employer. However, independent healthcare management vendors can be engaged to reach out to employees with health risk indicators and help guide them to intervention programs like EAP or provide referrals to mental health providers, etc.
    • HRA summary data information can be used to see the varying risks in the population as a whole; sometimes data can also be broken down by business unit or occupation. Interventions can then be designed – i.e. resiliency training for employees who are under high stress, or more visible communication on EAP resources, stress reduction techniques, crisis intervention initiatives, etc.
  • One data resource often overlooked is Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and short term disability (STD) frequency and cause of absence. High absence rates, especially in units that have high-stress environments, can be an important red flag. FMLA summary information can be reviewed in conjunction with summary data from HRA, STD and workers’ compensation reports to identify occupations and business unit populations where stress or depression may be a factor.
    • Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI) research in 2013 showed FMLA usage to care for a family member more than doubles the risk of an STD claim for employee disability[2] due to mental health issues within a year. It seems reasonable to think this stress could show up in other areas, as well, i.e. increased risk of presenteeism, work injury or extended disability while off work due to other health issues.
    • For many employers, FMLA intermittent leave has a high absence rate for mental health and depression, and often the reason for leave is available to the leave administrator. This is an area where referral to employee health resources can be a valuable intervention.

Managing the risk of prescription drugs that impair performance

  • Many employers have access to their prescription drug usage in summary data. Usually this data includes drug names, frequency of prescriptions and costs, as well as break-out by business locations or zip codes.
  • Use of this summary data to identify drug use in employee populations that may increase the risk of injury is a first step to understanding what risks may exist and what methods can be used to ensure all employees are safe to perform work tasks.
  • Use of the company medical director or a trusted physician consultant as an advisor to assist in this data review and in development of alternative intervention strategies is recommended. Interventions could have high impact on employees, as well as operations and safety. Incorporating legal and human resources into this process is also highly recommended.

Many employers are realizing that mental health and emotional well-being can greatly impact overall health issues, employee presenteeism, lost time from work, overall productivity and risk of injury/illness. Is this a growing concern for your organization too? I look forward to hearing your perspective.

Denise Fleury, SVP, Disability and Absence Management

Read more in our “stress in the workplace” series: part 1part 2

[1] IBI Chronic Disease Profile, Depression, IBI, 2013 [2] “Early Warnings: Using FMLA to Understand and Manage Disability Absence,” IBI, 2013

Tags: ADA, ADAAA, Chronic conditions, Claims management, Denise Fleury, Depression, Disability and leave, EAP, Employee benefits, FMLA, Healthcare, HRA, Lost time, Mental health, Prescription drug spending, Presenteeism, Productivity management, PTSD, Risk management, Safety, Sedgwick, Stress, Stress in the workplace, Wellness, Workers' compensation, Workplace injuries and illnesses