Risk Insider: Terri Rhodes

Treat the Individual, Not the Stigma

By: | April 20, 2015 • 2 min read

Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Terri was an Absence and Disability Management Consultant for Mercer, and also served as Director of Absence and Disability for Health Net and Corporate IDM Program Manager for Abbott Laboratories.

The recent tragedy of the crashed Germanwings flight and the deaths of 150 people raise a number of workplace concerns about employees with mental illness, including depression.

Depression is a common disease. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of “current depression” in the U.S. general population averages about 9 percent, with state rates ranging from 4.8 percent in North Dakota to 14.8 percent in Mississippi.

Any disease of this scale and scope poses risks; risks to individuals, risks to families and risks to employers.

If we learn anything from the Germanwings tragedy, it’s that mental illness, like all illness, is normal. It can be situational, acute or chronic.

So what can employers do to reduce those risks?

First, we must think and act as though mental illness is just that, an illness, a disease. And by the way, that’s what the law says. But stigma attached to mental illness has not gone away.

As a matter of fact, according to a 2014 survey conducted by the Disability Management Employer Coalition, stigma around mental health is not decreasing among employers.

Only when society, and not just employers, treat mental illness like “any other disease” will screening and treatment become effective. Many employees give false information about their mental state to avoid the potential negative workplace repercussions of mental illness.

Screening tools are most effective when employees truly believe revealing mental health issues is an avenue that will help them access treatment options so they can better perform their jobs.

Employers in particular need to become educated about recognizing signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety. This alone sends a powerful message that mental illness, like all illness, respects no title or position.

Next, employers should make better use of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). In the DMEC 2014 Behavioral Risk Survey, fully 97 percent of employers surveyed had an EAP program. But as prevalent as EAPs are, they are woefully underutilized.

Employers must do a better job of communicating the services they provide and continue to emphasize that they can be used confidentially with no impact on an employee’s work status — just like any other health care service.

When employers effectively communicate about EAPs, the results are impressive. How a company uses an EAP reflects the diversity of its organization, employees, market and other HR resources.

Although detailed EAP performance statistics are limited, studies suggest that employer-sponsored EAPs can reduce company disability, medical, pharmacy and workers’ compensation costs.

If we learn anything from the Germanwings tragedy, it’s that mental illness, like all illness, is normal. It can be situational, acute or chronic.

We need to offer unfettered treatment for mental illness that doesn’t imply or make the individual feel something is “wrong with them.” And we need to have more education and training in the workplace and in our schools to identify the high-risk individual that has the potential to wreak havoc on the workplace or public.

It is sad that we find out after an event that an individual had significant mental issues and we didn’t see the signs or symptoms. When we all embrace that fact, we can effectively identify this illness, treat it, and reduce the risks it imposes on all of us.

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