Employers: More Likely Than Not, You Have an Employee Suffering from a Mood Disorder. How You Respond Matters

With the pandemic negatively impacting the mental health of 36% of U.S. adults, according to a recent NAMI study, providing support at work is now a business imperative.
By: | December 8, 2021

If a silver lining can be found in the collective impact the world has experienced throughout the pandemic, perhaps greater awareness around mental health would be it.

“One of the positive things that came out of the pandemic is the de-stigmatizing of mental health,” Dr. Geralyn Datz, president and clinical director for Southern Behavioral Medicine Associates confirmed.

“It’s become okay to talk about mental health; you’ll even hear people say, ‘I’m anxious today’ or ‘[I’m] down today’ or what have you.”

Having the space to be more open about our moods, especially in the workplace, can even be a step toward prevention, as Dr. Ann Hawkins, founder and chief innovation officer for 24hr Virtual Clinic, noted.

It’s not just a matter of occasionally feeling happy, sad, cranky or upbeat. Moods can be “the precursor for many behavioral or mental health situations,” Hawkins said.

Overwhelmingly, U.S. adults are aware of the impact that one’s mood and mental health has on various facets of life. Eighty-six percent of adults who participated in a recent study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) agreed that “mood disorders can significantly interfere with thoughts, behavior, activity, and physical health.”

Examining the feedback from over 1,500 U.S. adults without a mood disorder, the study aimed at exploring today’s general perceptions on mood disorders, as well as the lived experiences of more than 2,000 U.S. adults diagnosed with a mood disorder and over 500 of their caregivers.

For over two decades, global and domestic studies have steadily confirmed that mood disorders, such as depression, account for the largest disease burden impacting workplace performance and safety.

The NAMI survey added to the body of evidence with 25% of adults with a mood disorder reporting a significant number of lost days at work or a loss of employment.

With 36% of U.S. adults confirming that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their overall mental health, and 25% reporting the pandemic having negatively impacted their productivity at work, helping people navigate their mental health at work is no longer optional for businesses looking to manage health-related costs.

“In this past year, mental health support went from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a business imperative,” Datz confirmed.

Costly Symptoms of Mood Disorders

Employees frequently missing work due to difficulties managing a mood disorder takes a financial toll on organizations. But the costs associated with some prevalent symptoms of a mood disorder, such as distraction, can be even higher, Hawkins pointed out.

A study conducted by researchers from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health found distraction-induced productivity losses amounted to $10,086 among office employees and $6,703 for manufacturing employees.

For office workers, the cost of being overly distracted is even higher. According to the Harvard research, distraction among office workers placed a 15 times higher toll on their productivity than the costs associated with missing work due to other health-related matters.

Considering the matter of potential injury, Datz described mood disorders making it hard to think, concentrate and pay attention. “They tend to slow people down in terms of reaction time,” she said.

“This can affect tasks like driving [and] computer work; it can affect the speed in working with machines. So, this can introduce the possibility of error, or accident, or oversight.

“Mood disorders make people feel tired, low and worthless,” Datz said. “As you can imagine, this would affect a worker’s productivity; it would impair their ability to meet deadlines, eat away at their confidence [at] a job, for example.

“So, these would definitely translate to performance issues.”

The Mental and Physical Connection

Mood disorders affect people’s ability to work and often are intertwined with a host of physical illnesses that impact all aspects of their lives. According to the CDC, many people with mental health disorders also require care for heart disease, diabetes, respiratory illness and disorders that affect muscles, bones and joints.

Dr. Geralyn Datz, president and clinical director for Southern Behavioral Medicine Associates

And Datz confirmed managing a mood disorder can also go hand-in-hand with self-management of physical health conditions.

“We know that mood disorders contribute to things like medical non-compliance,” she said. “So, people with mood disorders are less likely to take their medications on a schedule — and that’s any medication, not just a mood medication.

“[If] they’re not taking their diabetes medications as faithfully as they should — their hypertension medicine or their high cholesterol medicine, or whatever it may be,” Datz said, “those consequences can add up and create a foundation of greater mood disorder.”

Mood Self-Management also Matters for People Without a Diagnosis

Managing emotions that contribute to mood disorders is equally important for adults without a clinical behavioral health diagnosis. The NAMI report revealed that adults who do not have a mood diagnosis often experienced the same symptoms faced by people with a verified disorder.

Over 50% of adults without a diagnosis who participated in the NAMI survey said they experienced extreme mood changes (73%); had times of feeling excessively sad or low (68%); found themselves excessively worrying (64%); avoided friends and social activities (63%).

Sixty-one percent of NAMI respondents without a mood disorder also reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harming behaviors.

Changes in sleep habits was the most prevalent symptom, however, affecting adults diagnosed with a mood disorder.

Physical Injuries Can Lead to Mood Disorders as Well

Organizations can also do well to ensure that their overall employee-health strategy includes prevention tools for mental and physical health injuries, because, as Datz noted, “work injuries cause mood disorders.”

“Injuries can cause pain; they can be a physical pain, and that can lead to depression, which is a mood disorder,” she said.

Injuries can change an employee’s perception of themselves. As a clinical health psychologist, Datz has seen patients who lost a finger or had scars and burns from work injuries, for example, that resulted in the onset of a mood disorder.

Even work injuries in the form of assault, Datz said, “can create [their] own storm of emotions, which can lead to mood disorders like trauma.”

Leadership at Work Can Help

Although mood disorders often stem from circumstances beyond the control of employers, strategies implemented at work can help prevent the existing mental and physical health conditions from worsening, both Datz and Hawkins confirmed.

With executives (53%) struggling with mental health issues in the workplace at a greater rate than their employees (45%), Hawkins pointed out, “It’s got to start at the top.”

“The CEO and the C-suite need to let people in the company, aside from their peers, know that they have anxiety, they have stress; it’s just a different perspective or a different level,” she said.

Along with greater openness among executives, Hawkins also advised organizations to include various levels of management in developing strategies to address mental health in the workplace. “Pick different leaders and include them,” she said, especially those who work closest to the majority of the staff.

Then, she encouraged, “Re-define, as a group, what your goals [and] values are. Envision and then hold everybody accountable to follow through.”

Employer benefits strategy may be a key health management tool for many people who are re-evaluating and re-prioritizing their health and safety amidst the ongoing pandemic. A poll conducted in early 2021 by The Conference Board showed that nearly 60% of workers reported concerns about stress and burnout.

But having access is only one part of the puzzle. Even when organizations have comprehensive employee assistance programs (EAPs) that include access to behavioral health counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists, Hawkins pointed out many people still need a nudge to make the call and get support.

Management can help foster an environment that encourages everyone to take action toward better mental health by utilizing available resources themselves as well, Hawkins said.

“Participate,” Hawkins emphasized. “It’s really getting managers to engage in what they’re telling other people to do.

“And whether it’s calling in and talking to somebody … whoever it is that you feel safe with,” Hawkins said, “schedule the time and just do it.”

Hawkins noted mental health prevention strategies need to go beyond having an EAP in place. Despite the recent rise in awareness and de-stigmatization around mental health, recent data showed that EAP utilization decreased 4 points during the pandemic.

“It’s more than an EAP,” Hawkins said. “Let’s expand [programs]; focus on physical and mental because they go together and look at the whole person.”

While Datz also acknowledged the intrinsic connection between mental and physical health, she has found that intentional communication around mental health can help staff better utilize existing resources such as EAPs.

Whether an organization uses email, newsletters, posters or campaigns, “whatever it may be,” Datz said, “talk about wellbeing, wellness, mood, mental health, and inform employees where they can go.”

When patients finally do find their way to her practice, Datz has found they often share how they were not aware their organization even had an EAP.

“People don’t know or remember,” she said. They need to be informed and reminded.

Results from the NAMI survey confirmed that receiving treatment for mental health issues makes a difference. Sixty-four percent of adults with a diagnosed mood disorder agreed having an existing treatment plan helped them manage their condition during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For those who were satisfied with their current treatment, 80% even said they coped well with changes to everyday life during the pandemic.

Psychological Safety at Work

As organizations examine their overall benefits strategy from a mental health perspective, Datz encouraged an honest look at the state of an organization’s culture.

“You have to create a culture that is accepting of mental health to begin with,” she said. “Because if nobody feels like they can speak up, then it’s very hard to implement anything.

“It’s important not to make this overwhelming or undoable for employers,” Datz said. Small actions such as checking in with employees and statements of appreciation in newsletters or even on physical paychecks can make a difference, Datz said.

But statements of appreciation “have to be backed up with real policies,” Datz added.

If a workplace is filled with complaints about the temperature, poor lighting, noise, lack of breaks or excessive overtime, an organization would need to address the things that employees are speaking up about as well.

Fostering positive relationships between supervisors and employees is also key.

Dr. Ann Hawkins, founder and chief innovation officer, 24hr Virtual Clinic

Management need not be expected to be clairvoyant about the emotional state of their staff nor provide a clinical diagnosis for anyone. But being observant and paying attention to the behaviors of staff makes a difference.

“Even if you can’t put your finger on it, you can see when someone’s isolated from the group; you can see facial expressions; you can see when somebody has been late when they used to be on time,” Datz said.

Acknowledging staff’s presence and asking people how they are and “how can I help you?” Datz said, can be meaningful.

And it’s important for supervisors to be open to any answer, she advised. “Whatever the answer is, if you can’t deal with it, that’s okay. You can find a way; you can refer, you can talk to your chain of command about it.”

“You can help the person identify what employee benefits may be … and just that little bit of effort can be so helpful for someone who might feel overwhelmed or not know where to turn,” Datz said.

Ease of access is part of what drove Hawkins to launch 24hr Virtual Clinic. Concerned about an employee, Hawkins explained, “a supervisor can call and talk to an experienced behavioral health clinician, and actually put together a strategy on how to approach this employee and what’s legal.”

Lean into DEI

Leaning into diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives could also improve the culture around mental health within an organization.

“If you’re trying to create a workplace that’s more diversified,” Datz encouraged, “you’re going to need to include education or awareness and acceptance about diversity.”

And mental health factors are becoming more widely included in DEI education for managers.

“If someone feels slighted or ostracized or not included, that is a mental health issue,” Datz affirmed.

Delving into the ideas of radical acceptance and equity in the workplace and encouraging the use of sensitive language, Datz affirmed, are important cultural changes that will have a positive impact on mental health throughout an organization. &

Raquel Moreno is a staff writer with Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected].

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