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Employers are making progress

November 1, 2007
by Clare Miller
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Many companies recognize the human and business costs of mental illness, but more could be done to help employees recover

Mental health advocates have found a strong ally in a somewhat surprising place—corporate America. Increasingly, human resource (HR) executives recognize the toll mental illness takes on their organizations and the benefits of taking action.

In a recent survey of more than 500 HR executives conducted by the American Psychiatric Foundation's Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and Employee Benefit News magazine, respondents overwhelmingly said that mental illness has more effect on indirect costs such as increased absenteeism and lost productivity than any other health condition. In recent years, the Partnership has seen a shift in the number of employers aware of the impact of mental illness, and a growing number of leading employers are taking action by instituting proactive education and screening programs. These employers are seeing firsthand the improvement in performance and reduction in costs that can result when treatment is not only available, but used—without fear of stigma—by those who need it.

Education Needed

Yet much still needs to be done. The Innerworkings: A Look at Mental Health in Today's Workplace survey also showed that HR executives' awareness about the cost of mental illness is not always shared by their colleagues in other corporate departments. Less than one-quarter of respondents said they believed that managers in their companies have an overall understanding of the toll mental illness takes on a person. And unfortunately, in many companies little is being done to change this. Two-thirds of respondents said that their companies do not educate managers on mental health issues, and only 15% said that they train managers in recognizing problems and directing employees to treatment.

Those numbers represent countless missed opportunities. Education programs needn't be complicated or costly, and often result in actual savings. "We got the biggest bang for our buck by training our managers in recognizing mental illness," Daniel J. Conti, PhD, the EAP director at JPMorgan Chase, said about a program that taught his company's managers how to react when they suspect an employee may be suffering with a mental health disorder.1 Sprint had great success in raising awareness with such basic communication tools as a survey, "lunch and learn" series, Webcast, and "mental health matters" brochure. "We want our employees to know that it is treatable," said Collier Case, Sprint's corporate benefits manager.2

Programs Are Cost-Effective

Mental health programs should be proposed like any other corporate program—with a focus on the benefits to the company. "Emphasize that this is an investment," said Catherine Baase, MD, global medical director at Dow Chemical.3

For many companies, the first step is to determine how much mental illness is costing them. Online tools that can help include those at http://www.depressioncalculator.com, http://www.alcoholcostcalculator.org, and http://www.bipolarsolutions.com. Companies also can refer to several studies on the cost of mental illness. Key findings include:

  • A worker with major depressive disorder averages 27.2 lost workdays annually due to absences or poor functioning on the job, and someone with bipolar disorder averages 65.5 days lost.4

  • Annual indirect costs per employee are $4,426 for someone with major depressive disorder and $9,619 for bipolar disorder.4

  • More work loss and impairment are caused by mental illness than chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and arthritis.5

  • Mental illness and substance abuse cost employers an estimated $80 billion to $100 billion in indirect costs each year.5

When companies look at the numbers, the value of mental health programs often is apparent. IBM decreased outpatient costs by almost $500,000 with its Care Advocacy Model, a program that integrates physical and mental health treatment, promotes voluntary screenings, and monitors people at risk. The program led to a 6% increase in use of behavioral health services and a 50% decrease in outpatient cases requiring acute or intermediate care.6


While those of us in the mental health field are well aware of the advances in mental health treatment, many others are not. When asked why employees often don't seek treatment, more than 40% of Innerworkings survey respondents said they thought one reason was that people "are unaware of available treatments or don't believe that they help," with nearly three-quarters saying because "they do not realize they are ill or believe they can solve the problem on their own." This points to the value of screening programs.