Beyond the Physical: Mental Health in the Workplace

On March 24th, less than an hour before it’s arrival into Düsseldorf Airport in Germany, Germanwings Flight 9525 tragically crashed into the French Alps, killing all 6 crew members and 144 passengers on board. Shortly after the crash made headlines, everyone was left asking the only logical question they could after a tragedy of this magnitude. How could this happen?

After the news broke that it wasn’t a technical malfunction that caused the crash, but instead, that pilot Andreas Lubitz had intentionally crashed the plane into the mountains, a far more complex question was raised. What would compel someone take their own life along with those of so many innocent people?

When further investigation revealed that Lubitz may have been suffering from deep depression or another form of severe mental illness, a pressing issue that’s too often ignored by employers had to be reexamined — the issue of mental health in the workplace.

Chances are someone you know is suffering

Mental illness in America is a much more rampant problem than most people come to realize.  One in four adults−approximately 61.5 million Americans−experience mental illness in a given year. And one in 17−about 13.6 million−live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that people affected by mental illness are not being treated effectively. According to a report by Harvard Medical School, only 57% of employees with symptoms of major depression said they had received mental health treatment in the previous 12 months. Of those in treatment, fewer than half — about 42% — were receiving treatment considered adequate, on the basis of how consistent it was with published guidelines about minimal standards of care.

According to Debra Lerner, the director of the Tufts Medical Center Program on Health, Work and Productivity, depression alone costs around $44 billion per year (yes, that’s a Billion with a “B”) in lost worker productivity in the U.S.

Productivity takes a nose dive when people call out sick, but other times it’s due to what’s known as presenteeism. Presenteeism is defined as “the problem of workers being on the job but, because of illness or other medical conditions, not fully functioning.” That being said, even though an employee may never miss a day on the job,  studies have shown that depression can lessen a person’s personal productivity by one-third or more.

The physical just won’t cut it

While most employers today understand the importance of keeping their employees healthy, many tend to focus mainly on their employees’ physical health, neglecting to address their mental health status. This lack of attention and focus is due to several reasons.

First of all, symptoms of mental illness are much harder to detect compared to physical illnesses. “Most physical conditions are visible, either to the naked eye or on an X-ray,” says Quelch, who holds a joint appointment as Professor in Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. but “Mental health conditions aren’t so readily identifiable.”

Secondly, mental illness tends to go unreported by the employees themselves because they fear that they may lose their job. So employers may not even be aware the issue exists in the first place.

Lastly,  if employers are aware of a mental health issue with an employee, they may be hesitant to take action because they fear running into legal issues like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employer discrimination against people with disabilities, including mental health problems. There is a large gray area with the ADA which causes employers resort to inaction.

“Once somebody gets on the job, under the ADA, generally the rule is you can ask medical questions and you can require people to undergo medical examinations only in certain circumstances,” says Christopher Kuczynski, assistant legal counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Only where it’s what we call ‘job-related and consistent with business necessity”.

How can you help?

Physical wellness solutions are generally easy to grasp and implement — you can offer a discounted gym membership, yoga classes in the office on Fridays, or healthier meal plans. But when it comes to implementing programs that deal with mental health issues, the solutions are far less obvious and many times employers are left not knowing where to turn.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can start doing today to help get mental health in your workplace on the right track. One of the best ways you can be proactive is to educate yourself on the warning signs that are indicative of certain mental illnesses and help employees get the support and treatment they need.



Adopt an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). An EAP is a resource that enables employees to reach out confidentially for assistance on any number of issues—stress management, finances, or life changes, alongside more serious issues such as depression or suicidal thoughts — serve as a critical support structure that can make employees feel more comfortable and more likely to reach out for help.

Create a culture that reduces extreme stress or anxiety where your executives to lead by example .  Research by Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Joel Goh estimates that workplace stress is responsible for up to 8 percent of national spending on health care and contributes to 120,000 deaths a year.  For instance, leaders in the company can set good examples by not sending emails at 3 a.m. or showing up in the office on every Saturday morning and expecting employees to do the same.

Institute a workplace education program on the warning signs and available treatments for mental illness on a regular basis. Education programs can help teach employees vital prevention strategies like  early recognition, access to care and effective treatment, open peer-to-peer dialogue and where to access tools and resources.

It’s unfortunate that it takes a tragic event like Flight 9525 to get people to start having a real conversation about the importance of addressing mental illness in the workplace. But hopefully the more we talk about it, the less taboo it will become and the more prepared both employers and employees will be.

Go beyond the physical. Start Building a healthier—both physically and mentally—future for your workplace today!