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Help! I’m Depressed and I Drink too Much!

As an employer, have you had an employee tell you that they are struggling with a mental health or substance abuse issue? Would you want to know? As many as 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. has a mental illness/substance abuse disorder, so chances are a significant portion of your employees could use your support in this area, but are not willing to speak up and ask for help. Why?

Mental illness & addiction are viewed as shameful

Most physical disabilities are not easily hidden. However, both mental illness and substance abuse disorders can be hidden, which many people prefer to do for as long as possible. Speaking about these topics when personally impacted by them may lead to ridicule and unfair/incorrect assumptions from others.

Employees may be concerned about their job

Due in large part to what the media portrays, a stereotype persists that people with mental illness are dangerous or violent; in fact, the opposite is true. There is also a consensus that people battling an addiction are not trustworthy, whether or not that reputation is deserved. Employees fear that disclosing this type of disability may lead to discrimination at work, such as:

  • Treated differently and/or ostracized by coworkers
  • Unwanted change in job duties
  • Less likely to be promoted
  • Termination

Why should you care?

I can name several reasons why everyone should care about this topic, but I will only focus on two:

Return on Investment

  • Alcohol Use Disorders account for approximately 500 million lost work days per year, and cost the U.S. Economy approximately $240 billion per year
  • Substance Use Disorders cost the U.S. Economy approximately $276 million per year
  • Mental health issues can negatively affect productivity, physical health, attendance, etc.
  • Mental illness causes more lost workdays and impairment than arthritis, asthma, back pain, diabetes, and heart disease
  • Depression is the 2nd leading cause of disability in the world

Retention, Turnover & Productivity

  • Reducing turnover can save an estimated $5,000/employee up to three times the annual salary of the position that needs to be filled
  • 80% of employees who disclosed the aforementioned issues to their employer and received treatment reported increased work efficacy/productivity
  • Employees who are happy at work and feel supported by their supervisors are less likely to leave and more likely to perform well

What can I do?

Creating a work culture that encourages employees to get the help they need, regardless of what they may be experiencing, is not inherently difficult but will take time.

  • Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
    • Leverage existing ERGs (or start a new one)
    • ERGs for People with Disabilities, Veterans…ANYONE could provide outreach and resources to employees
  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
    • Highlight the benefits provided by your company’s EAP regularly
  • Accommodations Process
    • Make sure your accommodations request process is clear
    • Educate employees on
      • Where to find the accommodation policy
      • Where to find the accommodations request form
      • Who to contact should they have a question
    • Peer Support
      • Encourage management and supervisors to disclose
        • When supervisors are not afraid to talk about their disabilities, whatever they may be, employees will be encouraged to do so as well
      • Mentoring
        • Mentoring should continue beyond onboarding and initial training
        • Mentors can provide support not only for questions related to job duties, career path, etc., but they can also be officially recognized as someone who is “safe” to speak to if need be
      • Language
        • Be mindful of the words you may casually use to describe everyday situations and/or people. If you often use terms such as “crazy”, “lunatic”, “drunk”, etc. employees may be less likely to ask for help due to fear of being judged or looked down upon.
        • Nearly every company has legal statements letting people know that they are an Equal Opportunity Employer and that they do not discriminate based on disability. These statements are always written in legalese and come across as genuine…only as a necessity. Include language (written, verbal, pictures) that lets both current and potential employees know your company truly embraces diversity.
      • Resources
        • Provide resources & information on this topic (such as where to go for help) for all employees in a variety of ways
          • Company newsletter
          • Bulletin board
          • Company intranet
          • TVs

Now what?

Sure, supporting employees who are working through mental health and/or substance abuse issues is the right thing to do morally and ethically, but you now know it also makes good business sense. Implement some, or all, of the strategies above and do not be surprised when you start reaping the financial benefits from increased employee retention rates, decreased employee absences, and increased productivity.

For additional resources and information:

SHRM article – https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/Pages/1014-mental-health.aspx

Mental Health America – http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/support-employee

ADA and Mental Illness at Work –  https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/your-rights/americans-disability-act.html

*Article out of Australia, has good tips for employers – https://www.sane.org/mental-health-and-illness/facts-and-guides/358-mental-illness-and-the-workplace#how-to-help

Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration – https://www.samhsa.gov/

Brianne Lott is a Hiring and Engagement Consultant with Disability Solutions with over twenty years of experience in the mental health field. 

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