Mental health issues in the workplace

15 Apr

Mental illness has become a significant issue in the workplace.

Dealing with mental health is an enormous problem facing our society. Individuals across the nation suffer from a range of disorders that the public, physicians and employers are just beginning to fully grasp. As awareness and understanding of these disorders grows, it will be more important for workplaces to ensure they're adequately protecting their workers and making accommodations for those who may already struggle with mental health problems. Strategic human resource management will be more important to guarantee this problem doesn't get out of control.

Mental health issues on the rise
An enormous number of people suffer from mental illnesses, and some may not even know it. According to the World Health Organization, it's thought that 350 million people across the globe suffer from depression, the most common mental health issue, and many more face other psychological challenges on a daily basis.

This estimate could be low. The National Institute of Mental Health notes that while sometimes mental health disorders present obvious symptoms, in some cases they don't impair an individual's ability to function at all. This could lead those affected to believe nothing serious is wrong with them. Overall, the NIH estimates 18.6 percent of U.S. adults have some sort of mental illness.

A study conducted by San Diego University's Professor Jean Twenge, the rate of depression has increased substantially since the 1980s. Her study of nearly 7 million people found that college students are 50 percent more likely now to say they feel overwhelmed and adults are more likely to say they sleep badly, feel like everything requires an effort and have a poor appetite today than they were years ago. These are all telltale symptoms of depression, and indicate mental health has worsened over the decades.

"Despite all of these symptoms, people are not any more likely to say they are depressed when asked directly, again suggesting that the rise is not based on people being more willing to admit depression," said Twenge.

There are still some misconceptions regarding mental health, so some people may think they're just having a bad week or that they need to "snap out of it" rather than considering depression or anxiety are serious, long-term health issues that can't be fixed without some sort of medical assistance.

While a stigma surrounding mental health may have been one of the issues that kept people from seeking treatment in the past, this doesn't appear to be a major barrier these days. Numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show that nearly 63 percent of adults strongly agree with the statement "Treatment can help people with mental illness lead normal lives," while almost 26 percent slightly agreed with that assessment

Why the spike in occurrences?
There could be several reasons for the steady increase in mental health issues over the past few decades. In his piece for Psychology Today, Gregg Henriques notes that one of the factors behind increased stress, anxiety and depression is the advent of technology. With constant access to social media and the Internet, people are more apt to become worried, stressed or unrealistically compare themselves to others. All of these things can contribute to serious mental health issues over time. The constant access to sad or frightening news stories, given the relatively new 24-hour news cycle, could also be playing a role in this.

One of the other factors he addresses is the fundamental difference between how people live now and how they evolved to function. Our diets, lack of exercise and less in-person communication could all contribute to issues like depression. Similarly, the freedom people have to make their own choices and moral decisions could be leaving them unsure of their place and what's actually right.

Obviously another factor that contributes to mental health struggles, especially in recent years, is the economy. Unemployment skyrocketed in recent years, and people all over the country experienced layoffs and significant financial pressures. Some families were left short of food, adequate health care or even lost their homes. Younger adults have, in many instances, been unable to find gainful employment after graduating college, forcing them to remain in low-wage jobs and delay what's considered "real" adulthood. These are all serious problems that undoubtedly have contributed to rising stress, anxiety and depression rates.

Those who have been able to keep their jobs throughout the economic crisis haven't necessarily enjoyed better mental health, though. According to Towers Watson's 2011/2012 "Staying @ Work Survey" report, nearly 90 percent of respondents said long hours were the main source of worker stress. This was a jump of nearly nine percentage points over the same survey conducted in 2009.

Are employers addressing mental health?
As rates of depression, anxiety and other disorders have shot up, employers have been left with no choice but to do something about it if they want to keep their top performing staff members. According to the Towers Watson report, 50 percent of employers had taken some sort of action to reduce stress due to long hours in 2011 compared to only 21 percent in 2009. Because many employees are also stressed over how smartphones and email make them feel on-call 24/7, 46 percent of companies said they had tried to address the issue of technologies expanding someone's availability after the workday had ended.

However, it appears that employers that are taking these steps aren't doing enough. The research indicated 45 percent of employees said their business's actions didn't have an impact on their stress related to long hours. Another 51 percent felt the efforts their management teams had made with regard to increased availability thanks to technology hadn't been helpful.

Ultimately, HR managers will need to take additional steps to guarantee they're preventing burnout, reducing stress and keeping the most valued employees from fleeing for greener pastures. By surveying staff members on what the company can do differently to increase their satisfaction and lower stress or depression, businesses will have a more clear idea of how to proceed with this critical task and proceed with the appropriate human resource solutions.

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