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February 3, 2017

New Approach to Mental Health

Summary:

Emotional and mental health issues should not be treated exclusively as a performance matter, but typically are.

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In recent years, thought leaders in business, government and risk management have developed a sophisticated understanding of the bottom-line impacts of untreated mental illness in the workplace. For example, mental health and brain science dominated the agenda at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2015. And the National Business Group on Health held its first CEO Mental Health Summit in October 2015. Among the costs highlighted in these forums: worker productivity loss, high healthcare utilization rates, skyrocketing disability outlays and employment litigation.

To further advance mental wellness in the workplace, it’s essential for legal and human resources to be part of this collective effort. Here, we explore this disparity in approaches, and discuss why it is so harmful to the interests of all – employers, insurers, employees and their families.

See also: Language and Mental Health

What most thought leaders know about workplace mental health, in a nutshell, is this:

  1. Mental illness is common and treatable, with a 25% incidence rate and an 80% recovery rate, akin to chronic physical illnesses;
  2. Early detection and treatment are the most effective and inexpensive means of helping employees get well and return to full productivity quickly; and
  3. If an employee takes a leave of absence, the longer the absence, the less likely the employee is to return to work.

Thus, the organizational strategic imperative is to create workplace conditions designed to enhance early detection and treatment, restoring the status quo as efficiently as possible.

In stark contrast to this organizational imperative, legal and human resources professionals often advise supervisors, managers and EAP professionals to treat potential emotional and mental health issues exclusively as a performance matter. This advice is usually driven by a desire to “avoid an ADA claim.” However, this approach usually postpones the inevitable and makes a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act more, not less, likely.

The result is often this pattern: a continuing decline in the employee’s condition and work performance, a severing of trust between employee and supervisor and isolation from others at work. Once a disciplinary action or performance improvement plan is imposed, both parties cut ties, and the result is a toxic cycle of leave of absence, disability claim, a request for accommodation, a failed interactive process, separation of employment and either litigation or a pay package. This is an expensive, disruptive and painful process that can often be avoided.

Employers would do well to consider this as an alternative approach:

Design a mental health policy that will unify executive leadership, legal counsel and human resources around the organization’s strategic approach to overall wellness.

  • This policy defines the vision, and the business case, for improving the mental health of the workforce and using the ADA interactive process as an effective means of achieving early detection and treatment of these impairments.
  • Training for supervisors, managers, legal counsel, HR, EAP staff and healthcare providers will highlight: A timely and collaborative exchange of information and interactive process maximizes success; the ADA does not require a fundamental alteration of any job; work teams and supervisors need to partner with HR on making accommodations work.
  • The policy will establish a confidential process for employees to obtain affordable, accessible treatment (either through existing vendors or through curated referrals).
  • Developing and implementing the mental health policy can stimulate and engage your organization in a discussion of the high incidence of emotional and mental health impairments and how these common, treatable conditions can be accommodated.
  • Mental Health 101 Training should be integrated into total wellness programs, including how to mitigate and address stressors in the workplace, how to respond to a colleague or supervisee who may be struggling and how to seek help confidentially.
  • Mental health champions should be designated, trained and made available as confidential resources to anyone at any point in the chain of command dealing with a mental health issue.

When executive leadership, legal counsel and human resources unify behind a strategic, business-savvy approach grounded in total wellness and ADA compliance, everybody wins.

See also: Why Mental Health Matters in Work Comp  

Insurance Thought Leadership’s continuing series of articles focused on suicide prevention is written by the Workplace Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the public-private partnership championing suicide prevention as a national priority.

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About the Author

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a battle with bipolar condition.

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About the Author

Judge (Ret.) Mary McClatchey, President of WorkSmart Partners, has three decades of experience as a judge, civil rights attorney, workplace mediator, organizational consultant, and trainer. Her company offers employers transformational human resources, employer compliance, flexible work, and mental health programs. An innovator in workplace mental health programming, she is a Workplace Task Force member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

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