The Cost and Solutions to Stress and Mental Illness in the Workplace: An Interview with Graeme Cowan

depression at workThe direct cost of depression to the United States in terms of lost time at work is estimated at 172 million day yearly. According to the World Health Organization, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada. Australian Graeme Cowan, who experienced a horrific five-year mental breakdown, published a report on this topic called, “The Elephant in the Boardroom: Getting Mentally Fit For Work”. A former Joint Managing Director with the management consultancy AT Kearney, he now works with leadership teams to help them create Thriving Tribes that focus on both performance and collective mood. Graeme is the author of a new book, “Back From the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar,” and can be found at www.IamBackFromTheBrink.com. I have the pleasure of interviewing him today on the topic of mental illness and the workplace.

1. What damage is stress and mental illness doing to the economy?

Thirty-four percent of lost productivity is caused by depression and stress disorders, yet 86% of employees with stress or depression prefer to suffer in silence and businesses pay the price.

While we can acknowledge the inevitability of change, at a deep level I think many of us struggle when change is actually thrust upon us. Ironically, many of these changes have been initiated to increase profitability, but most people I talk to say that their commitment and discretionary effort has withered due to stress and uncertainty.

In the 2011 R U OK? at Work Survey, 40% of people said they were “typically stressed out every day” whilst 12% rated their stress extreme (8, 9, or 10 on a 10 point scale). These harmful levels of stress lead to a decline in physical and mental health, low job satisfaction, and poor financial return.

In a report by Medibank and PriceWaterhouse, the lost productivity due to absenteeism and presenteeism from depression and stress disorders was estimated at 34%.

An analysis of workers compensation claims shows that mental stress claims now account for 33% of payouts.

2. What would make the biggest difference from a work policy and attitude perspective?

When we asked 2,676 people (79.5% from North America) who live with depression or bipolar what changes they would like to see in the workplace to reduce stigma, these were their top 5 answers.

What do you believe can be done to reduce the stigma associated with mood disorders in the workplace? (n=2,676)

Strongly Agree or Agree

Treat mental health disorders with the same care and compassion as physical illnesses.

89%

Prohibit health and income protection insurance from discriminating against mental illness.

87%

Have a mental health policy in place which lists all employees’ rights and prohibits an organization from discrimination

79%

Have workplaces provide an integrated mental health and physical wellness program.

74%

Have more information available on the organization’s intranet about treatments for mental illness.

70%

What’s interesting here is that nobody wants special treatment. Employees suffering from mental health disorders simply want the discrimination, ignorance, and stigma corrected. In most cases, the changes don’t involve significant cost, compared to the potential expense involved in worker’s compensation claims or recruitment and retraining costs if an employee leaves.

3. What helps most in prevention and recovery?

Based on our direct research and reviewing other evidence, these are our recommendations.

  • Teach managers and team members how to ask “are you OK?”: 51% of employees believe that the most effective way to address harmful stress isspeaking to someone at work”. This creates a compelling case to increase the will and skill of managers and team members to ask “are you OK?” and encourage the stressed employee to take action. In contrast, a resource which many employers rely on to provide assistance to workers with stress, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), was judged effective by only 8% of respondents.
  • Provide practical and anonymous resources: with 86% of respondents unwilling to discuss their condition with workmates there is clear need for anonymous or private access to practical information and resources. Whether available via an organisation’s intranet or downloadable in the form of a smart phone app, these resources must be both practical and evidence-based. To accommodate different learning styles, multimedia delivery would be optimal.
  • Form a panel of mental health savvy Primary Physicians: the acknowledged benefit of an early and professional diagnosis presents a strong case for organisations to help employees quickly and easily access mental health savvy doctors. A mental health professional panel could provide expert assistance to employees when required.
  • Offer a physical and mental wellbeing program: employees with a positive mood are 31% more productive, sell 37% more, and are 300% more creative. The productivity benefit that could flow from an integrated program that builds employee physical and mental wellbeing is almost self-evident, especially in light of exercise being judged so important for recovery.
  • Understand employee work strengths: work is an essential element of wellbeing. Tom Rath’s (Gallup, Inc) book Strengths Based Leadership finds that employees who use their top five strengths on a daily basis are 600% more likely to be engaged at work, and 300% more likely to be satisfied with their lives. Martin Seligman in his book Flourish provides numerous case studies highlighting how recovery from mental illness can be enhanced by coaching people using their strengths.
  • Addressing discrimination in insurance: those with a history of mental illness may experience difficulties in obtaining various forms of insurance. Discriminatory practices may include either refusal of insurance at the point of entry or denial of claims on the grounds of non-disclosure of a previous mental illness. Although there has been some efforts to address these discriminatory practices and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, there still appears a long way to go.

Originally published on Sanity Break at EverydayHealth.com

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4 thoughts on “The Cost and Solutions to Stress and Mental Illness in the Workplace: An Interview with Graeme Cowan

  1. What scars and effects does mental illness inflect of family & those closest to the mentall ill ? Mental illness does not only harm the person who is sick but it tries to distroy others in its path. How does one cope & survive with someone elses mental illness? This needs an lot of strength & knowledge. Sorry, as a mother I feel exhausted and utterly drain. I want to walk away if I could. If I as a mother can feel this way ….. I wonder how others feel?

    What is my escape route from this? I have heard this line ” you need to see some one.” Why I don’t know? Unfortunately the problem is no mental health worker has the right formula. There training still has many holes & more often than not they are in need help them self.

    Try telling your insurance company, ” my adult child is mentally sick, won’t get help but I need help to educate & cope my self.” I have paid out of pocket to get help for my self. Has it truly helped? No.

    How do I explain at work that a family member has drained and snapped all my energy with her abuse or with estrangements?

    How do I explain to my friends the things my adult child has said and done? Yes, they can still look glamorous and happy on the outside, yet between the smiles has said ” I will cut my wrist.”

    How does one define the action of someone with mental illness? Is it just plane wicked or mental illness?

  2. Oops!

    What scars and effects does mental illness inflect on family & those closest to the mentall ill ? Mental illness does not only harm the person who is sick but it tries to distroy others in its path. How does one cope & survive with someone elses mental illness? This needs lot of strength & knowledge. Sorry, as a mother I feel exhausted and utterly drain. I want to walk away if I could. If I as a mother can feel this way ….. I wonder how others feel?

    What is my escape route from this? I have heard this line ” you need to see some one.” Why I don’t know? Unfortunately the problem is no mental health worker has the right formula. There training still has many holes & more often than not, they are in need help them self.

    Try telling your insurance company, ” my adult child is mentally sick, won’t get help but I need help to educate & cope my self.” I have paid out of pocket to get help for my self. Has it truly helped? No.

    How do I explain at work that a family member has drained and snapped all my energy with her/ his abuse or with estrangements?

    How do I explain to my friends the things my adult child has said and done? Yes, they can still look glamorous and happy on the outside, yet between the smiles has said ” I will cut my wrist.”

    How does one define the action of someone with mental illness? Is it just plane wicked or mental illness?

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