Employers Advised to Avert a Workplace Mental Health Crisis

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompenstion.com) – Employers lose 10 times more money due to depression than from the flu. That reality is even more concerning now, as the pandemic has exacerbated incidents of depression and other mental health issues. Employers need to recognize and understand ways to help prevent what experts say is a workplace mental health crisis.

“For the flu there is about a $1,000 per case in lost productivity, but then you have over $10 billion in direct medical costs. That’s for flu, an acute infectious disease,” said Scott Cherry, MD, chief medical officer of Axiom Medical. “With depression … you have about $10,000 in lost productivity [per case] and $110 billion in direct medical costs. “

Despite the cost differences, nearly 60 percent of employers provide on-site flu shots for their employees while few have strategies to address depression. During a recent webinar, Cherry and other panelists said employers who invest in preventive programs would see healthier employees and lower costs for their organizations.


“There are a lot of chronic comorbid conditions associated with mental health,” Cherry said. “It’s the largest reason for worker disability worldwide.”

Cherry cited research showing that 75 percent of employees have struggled with a mental health issue of some sort, but 8 in 10 of them don’t seek care due to the stigma and shame. Mental health conditions are responsible for 62 percent of missed workdays. Additionally, those with untreated mental health issues:

  • Use 3 times more care
  • Have twice the rate of heart attacks or strokes
  • Are two times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes – estimated to cost $13,241 per employee per year in medical costs and lost productivity
  • have higher turnover rates

Mental health is the leading cause of years lived with a disability, a measure of years in perfect health lost.

The COVID-19 Effect

An estimated 50 million Americans were dealing with a diagnostic mental health condition before the pandemic began. Researchers say that number has grown in the past year. One reason is the imposed restrictions on in-person contact.

“In addition to isolation and other effects, our brains are designed to answer two questions: ‘what does something mean – is it a threat or not,’ and ‘now what do I do?’ What we hate most is ambiguity,” said Les Kertay a clinical and consulting psychologist. “So on top of being afraid, being isolated, I can’t think of a more ambiguous situation. Since we started [the pandemic] all the answers have been, ‘I don’t know.’”

Those who have been directly impacted by COVID-19 – either themselves or someone close to them – have added stress. In fact, new research shows that people who have had the virus are much more likely to develop mental health conditions – even if they’ve never had any previous symptoms.

“Of those that are actually diagnosed with COVID, 1 in 5 develop a psychiatric illness within 90 days. That’s very powerful,” Cherry said. “Those that have had mental health issues in the past are two times as likely to be diagnosed with a mental health condition.”

Depression, anxiety and insomnia are the common symptoms associated with stressful situations in general.

“We’re talking about a spectrum of mental health impacts,” Kertay explained. “Not everyone is going to be diagnosable – meet the criteria for a diagnosed mental health condition. But almost everyone will have some symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, insomnia if you’re really confronted with the virus itself. It’s really important that we as employers pay attention to the whole spectrum and not just the diagnosis.”

What Employers Can Do

While some employees may need medications to address symptoms of depression, anxiety or insomnia, others can benefit from support – and contact. Employers can offer help by knowing what to look for. Signs include sadness or reduced ability to concentrate, withdrawal, substance abuse, performance/attendance concerns, anger and hostility, and suicidal thoughts.

“Recognizing the signs helps evaluate how people are doing on this spectrum,” Kertay said. “Some days I need a break. If somebody sees me needing a break day after day, after the 3rd day somebody might want to ask me, ‘how are you doing.’

It doesn’t require a formal mental health evaluation, Kertay said. It’s what you might say to a colleague as you pass each other in the hall while working in-person. Any change in behavior should be a red flag, especially if it affects the person’s work. Employers can intervene without fear of violating privacy concerns.

“We think we’re violating HIPAA or HR laws,” Kertay said. “I’m not suggesting saying ‘hey are you feeling depressed and taking your medications?’ But [saying] ‘how are you doing,’ is not a problem.”

Kertay also suggests employers ensure they have a culture of support. One way is to dispel some of the myths associated with mental health issues. For example, a widespread belief is that depression is a chronic disease that comes and goes.

“In point of fact, over half of people who experience major depressive episode – not just feeling blue but a two-week period where we’re struggling to get out of bed – over half will never have one again,” Kertay related. “We know almost nothing about the half that gets better and stays better because we don’t study them. So not only does the general public have this wrong but mental health professionals have this wrong.”

Employees who are suffering with depression or other mental health issue are often reluctant to discuss it with their employers for fear of reprisals. Employers can change that attitude.

“From an employer perspective what I’m thinking is I’d much rather have somebody who came to me that I can help and if they need treatment they get treatment, because they are going to be a much better employee,” Kertay said. “I’m not going to punish somebody for this, I’m going to reward them.”

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