Managing a looming mental health crisis in the workplace

The struggles of these students become not just a concern for their individual well-being but an economic concern for the workplace. But employers have options to address them, and putting strategies in place now can prevent behavioral health crises in the future.

 Studies confirm that mental health disorders in undergraduates are on the rise. A study by the Healthy Minds Network, a research organization, found that in a survey of 200,000 students in 2017, 34 percent had received mental health treatment in the past year, up from 19 percent in 2007.

 The Journal of American College Health also reports that the treatment and diagnosis of depression in students is increasing. Almost 15 percent of college students across the country suffer, according to the research.

 “I definitely see it,” said Lauryn Falgout, a certified mental health counselor for Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC) in Schnecksville. “It’s not just more frequent, but more severe. Students are reporting more intense symptoms. We are seeing students come in multiple times a day. It’s really staggering.”

 Falgout lists many reasons for the rising rates of depression and anxiety. “They come from valid concerns,” she said. “There is an increase in self-comparison from increased exposure to social media. There is a lot of social pressure.”

 She also mentioned the adjustment to college life and less parental input as possible reasons for the increase in mental health issues.

 Of those who report feeling depressed nationwide, 42 percent say their symptoms make it difficult for them to function, according to a 2017 study by the American College Health Association.

 At the same time, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that major mental illnesses costs American employees at least $193 billion each year in lost earnings. Companies themselves lose roughly $44 billion in lost productivity due to untreated depression in the workforce.

 Loss of productivity, excessive tardiness, absenteeism, and loss of employees are all consequences of unmanaged mental health issues, according to Dr. Raja Abbas, founder of Ethos Clinic, a mental health clinic with campuses in Bethlehem, Emmaus and Lehighton. In addition, untreated mental illness can prompt other on-the-job risks like increased accidents and workers compensation claims, workplace violence, and harassment.

 “The mental health issues among those about to graduate or who are already coming into the workforce with these struggles must be faced,” Dr. Abbas warns. “Paying attention to their mental health can only benefit employers.”

 Employers can help to prevent problems with expanded mental health benefits. From on-call counselors and in-house wellness workshops to simply paying attention, other avenues also are available.

 Tina Hamilton, president and CEO of myHRPartner Inc., an Allentown-based provider of outsourced human resources services, supports increasing employee mental health benefits.

 “From a purely business standpoint, companies want their employees to perform well with no loss in production,” Hamilton said. “Mental health issues hinder production in the workplace.”

 Hamilton recommends employers offer employee assistance programs, or EAPs, as part of their mental health benefits package. “EAPs are offered along with health insurance,” she said. “Most employees have them and don’t even realize it. With an EAP, an employee in crisis can call and a therapist will be there to talk to them. They may get a certain number of consultations at no cost.”

 Hamilton added that the services can also help employers in tough situations.

 “It’s such a valuable benefit,” she said. “If a company has an employee who is suffering from anorexia, for example, they can call and talk with someone who knows how to handle it.”

 Abbas agrees that a proactive approach to mental health care is key.

 “Check in on your employees,” he said. “You don’t want things to escalate to a point where there is a massive problem. An employee in crisis can end up in the hospital. That leads to a loss of productivity and the loss of a good employee.”

 “You may have an employee who wants to work hard, and it will benefit the company and the employee for him to get treatment and get back on his feet,” he added. “A happy employee is a productive employee.”

 Abbas sees incidents of mental health issues rising in the workplace, schools and elsewhere. But, the stigma of mental illness remains as a barrier to treatment.

 “There is still a lot of stigma and fear that speaking up might result in the loss of a job,” he said.

 Employees are often less scared to admit that they have a physical health issue than a mental health one, according to Abbas. Reassurance that the employer will stand by the employee with mental illness can go a long way.

 “Outpatient clinics are available for treatment,” Abbas said. “Let’s rehabilitate patients quickly and get them back to work. It’s just the right thing to do for the employee, his or her family, the community … there is a ripple effect.”

 Abbas mentions meditation and mindfulness workshops, exercise classes and healthy eating initiatives as some of the many nontraditional mental health benefits employers can offer.

 “Regular quarterly mental health retreats are an option,” he said. “Meditation takes practice. These offerings can’t just be a one-time thing, it takes work.”

 Health insurance companies themselves benefit when companies offer increased mental health benefits to employees, Abbas said.

 “The insurance companies are the ones who end up paying the most when an employee needs weeks or months of treatment,” he said. “Insurance companies can work with employers and pay towards benefits that can prevent bigger problems down the line. It’s not rocket science. Health insurance companies stand to benefit the most from employees’ improved mental health.”

The Affordable Care Act offers some support for employees in crisis. The law mandates that all private and individual medical plans offer benefits for mental health and substance use, and that people with a mental illness cannot be denied coverage. Yet stigmas and roadblocks remain.

 Locally, insurer Highmark Health is increasing its focus on mental health benefits and employing strategies to address the mental health needs of its customers.

 “We realize that behavioral health and mental illness impacts a myriad of other health issues,” said Dr. Caesar DeLeo, senior medical director for Highmark Blue Shield, a subsidiary of Highmark Health, headquartered in Pittsburgh.

 “Its impact is not limited to the person experiencing symptoms,” he said. “It impacts families, significant others, friends and employers.”

 To address the impact, DeLeo said, “We promote screening for depression in the primary care setting and treatment either by way of a counselor or pharmaceuticals often managed by a primary care practitioner.”

 Highmark also promotes general health and stress management through phone apps, self-care initiatives, and case management services for more complex disease.

 Tina Hamilton supports being more mindful of the mental health of young, newly graduated employees to improve the well-being of both individuals and businesses.

 “It’s better to be proactive than reactive,” she said. “These days we see violence in schools, in the workplace, everywhere. Employees and employers can put themselves and others at risk without help. We can’t be afraid to speak to someone when we are concerned.”

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