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Mental Illness and the Workplace: Lifting the Stigma
Hardly any workplace is too big or too small to avoid the impact of mental illness. According to TheWall Street Journal, four people in a typical office of 20—one out of five—can be expected to suffer from a mental condition this year. Depression alone is estimated to cost businesses in the United States $70 billion a year in lost productivity, medical outlays and other costs.

On top of this toll in money and human pain, mental illness is among the more difficult workplace problems to tackle head-on. Unlike most other diseases, it is one that many sufferers choose to leave untreated even when treatment is available. For them, the promise of some relief competes with the fear of being stigmatized because they seek help.

Myths about mental illness
Depending on where they work, that fear may be well founded. Despite research evidence and the efforts of many employers and mental-health organizations to refute them, there are several enduring myths about employees with mental illness—that they can’t handle stress, that they do second-rate work, that their conditions are incurable and that they are unpredictable and potentially violent. None of these is true, but if an employee senses that an employer or supervisor believes them, that could be enough to discourage a request for help.

How can a company combat the myths, lift the stigma and make sure people with mental illness get the treatment they need?

First, a clear message needs to come from the head of a company and be communicated to every employee. The main point to be made is that the organization has a nondiscriminatory attitude—it sees mental illness as no different from physical illness in terms of how people are treated in the workplace. “A company needs to tell people that, if they ever seek help for mental illness, it won’t be held against them,” says Robert Dinerstein, a law professor at American University in Washington D.C., who focuses on disability issues.

Sue Walther, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania, says a business could have all its employees view a CD on mental-health stigmas, or make sure that new employees are told—without having to ask—about insurance coverage for mental health care. Having an employee assistance program (EAP) also sends the right signal, Walther says. She and Dinerstein say it may be helpful for employees who have (or have had) a mental illness and are seen as successful to come forward and talk about their experience, though employers should never try to force self-disclosure.

In short, supervisors can’t act on their own to deal with the reluctance of employees to seek help. “The business has to establish the environment first,” Walther says.

How a supervisor can help
Even in the best of environments, however, it will typically be the supervisors’ role to deal with individual cases. Employees may still be reluctant to admit a problem or to seek help. Supervisors may also face the question of how far to accommodate employees who do seek treatment.

Often, says Walther, a supervisor will be one of the first to perceive something wrong, such as a noticeable decline in performance by an employee who had been a steady and competent worker. At that point, she says supervisors should take employees aside and talk to them to find out if anything’s wrong. They should also make it clear that the company wants to help and has services such as an EAP for that purpose.

“At that point the person hopefully is comfortable enough to hook up with whatever help is available,” Walther says. But, she notes, “The bottom line is that you can’t force them to get help.” Employers have a right to expect that work will be adequately performed. If an employee understands that a performance problem is putting his job in jeopardy and still won’t get the needed assistance, there may not be much more the supervisor can do.

Consider the cost
As for accommodating employees with mental illness, the question is how much the employer can afford to spend (or adjust normal hours and routines). Mental health advocates and many employers regard the costs as minimal in the case of a valued employee who would be difficult to replace. When an employee is aware that the company will not make these adjustments, he may be less reluctant to seek treatment. As Walther notes, some of the steps taken to make life easier for people with mental illness—any actions taken to reduce stress, for example—also can make work more pleasant for everyone. The steps supervisors and companies take to help people seeking a cure can also be good prevention.

Mental Health in the Workplace published by the Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania reviews legal, economic and sociological aspects of mental illness among employees. For a copy, visit

Sources: Robert Dinerstein, professor of law and associate dean for academic affairs, American University, Washington, D.C.; Sue Walther, executive director, Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, Pa.

By Tom Gray
© 2004 Achieve Solutions