Survey on Workplace Mental Health Reveals ‘Alarming’ Findings

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL ( – Mental health issues can have a significant impact on organizations. They can reduce productivity, decrease team morale, and increase costs for employers. The majority of missed work days — 62 percent — are attributable to mental health problems.

Getting treatment for mental health-related conditions as early as possible is imperative to prevent long-term suffering. With May being ‘Mental Health Awareness Month,’ experts are trying to raise awareness of the issue and provide employers with strategies to implement in the workplace.

Extent of the Problem

A survey of more than 1,800 workers revealed almost half were aware of a colleague with a mental health issue. More than half — 62 percent — said they themselves have experienced a period where they have felt mentally unwell. Of 500 workers who had been diagnosed with a mental health issue, many said they had come to work while they had suicidal feelings.

“It’s alarming to hear that 42 percent of individuals have come to work while feeling suicidal,” said Michelle Jackson, assistant VP of Unum. The disability insurer released a report on mental health issues in the workplace, based on its survey of employees and employers conducted in the first quarter of this year. Jackson discussed the report in a recent webinar produced by the Disability Management Employer Coalition.

“Across the most recent four-year period, we’ve seen an increase in our behavioral health claims,” Jackson said. “…from 2015 to 2018 we saw a 10 percent increase. We dug into that information and we saw a steady increase was really concentrated in anxiety conditions, while depression seems to be maintaining at a steady level.”

Anxiety is described as the fight or flight response run amok. Some anxiety is normal, typically when a person feels threatened. But when there is a chronic low level of fight or flight reactions it becomes problematic.

Workers with anxiety disorder may seem disorganized or scattered. They may appear upset or stressed, avoid social interactions, are irritable, avoid eye contact, and have nervous habits. They may have difficulty concentrating and have irrational fears and a fear of social situations.

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable — if the person gets treatment. But only 37 percent of those affected actually do.

Depressed workers may also seem scattered or absentminded. They may express indifference or have inappropriate reactions to coworkers. Often they are isolated from team members, and lack confidence in their abilities. Their productivity may be slow, and they can miss deadlines. They may show up late for work and exhibit afternoon fatigue. Many depressed people have what experts call ‘learned helplessness,’ a feeling of being trapped in a situation and having no control to avoid or escape it.

After anxiety and depression, third on the Unum list of mental health conditions affecting adults was attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The condition has increased among adults in recent years and is most prevalent among males.

“We found 16 percent of surveyed respondents said they have a diagnosis of ADHD, Jackson said. “This can significantly impact the ability to work.” It can, for example, affect a person’s ability to stay focused and pay attention. While ADHD is more commonly seen among children, it is estimated that about 8 percent of adults will have ADHD at some point in their lives.

The Unum survey showed workers most affected by mental health conditions are those in the finance, insurance and real estate industries, along with healthcare. Least affected were those in agriculture, forestry and fishing.


One of the most important things employers can do is improve communications about what is available to workers.

As part of the Unum survey, workers and employers were asked about the mental health services available to employees. Among HR representatives, 93 percent said they offer EAPs; but only 38 percent of employees said their employer offers an EAP.

“This was striking to us,” Jackson said. “The disconnect between these two numbers clearly shows that an understanding of resources that are available may be the issue and the gap.”

Employers are also advised to avoid a one-size-fits-all solution to the issue of mental health among workers. For example, some workers may feel more stressed and anxious working in an open space, rather than an enclosed environment.

Additional strategies suggested include:

  • Normalize the conversation. “Top-down support of mental health is crucial in creating an open dialogue, as is an open door policy,” the report says. Some companies also establish ‘mental health champions;’ designated employees who receive special training and encourage dialogue about mental health issues.
  • Implement appropriate policies and procedures. Workers should feel comfortable seeking help as soon as possible. Policies that protect against discrimination and those that provide adequate accommodations can go a long way.
  • Educate and train. Managers should be fully aware of resources, such as EAPs and external resources. Employees should be educated about mental health issues and the related company policies and procedures. Experts can be brought in to present sessions on work-life balance and ways workers can protect their own mental health.
  • Provide safe spaces. Some companies have time-out or meditation rooms for people to take breaks, relax and get their thoughts together.
  • Implement appropriate return-to-work strategies. Transitional RTW plans can help someone who’s been out with a mental health issue. It gives the employee time to rebuild his sense of worth and mental strength.

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