According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, serious mental illness costs the U.S. $193.2 billion USD in lost earnings each year. In Canada, Workplace Strategies for Mental Health estimates the workplace costs associated with mental illness at $51 billion CAD per year.

Clearly the impact mental health can have in the workplace is too big to ignore.

By investing in mental health, employers can counter some of these costs and, more importantly, make a better workplace where all employees feel valued for their contribution. (Learn more in Supporting Employee Mental Health in the Workplace and Fostering the 5 Essential Elements of Well-Being in the Workplace.)

The benefits of investing in a psychologically healthy workplace

For employees, a workplace that supports mental health translates into less job stress and associated illnesses, better productivity and higher self-esteem.

In its 2016 Work and Well-Being survey, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that one-third of workers surveyed reported being chronically stressed on the job. Several sources of stress in the workplace were identified. More than half of the workers surveyed said they felt like their workplace did not support employee well-being, that there were few opportunities for growth or advancement, and that they were paid low wages — all three are significant stressors.

Stress at work can cause depression and anxiety, leading to absenteeism, presenteeism, and a loss of productivity. In the long term, stress can lead to substance abuse, chronic illness like high blood pressure (hypertension) and heart disease, and ultimately higher healthcare costs.

When employees feel content, engaged, and valued — not stressed out — they are more likely to thrive at work.

For employers, fostering a psychologically healthy workplace improves productivity, employee retention and loyalty.

While acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health in the workplace, APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence defines a successful wellness and health promotion program as one which “address[es] the challenges unique to your particular organization and tailor[s] programs and policies to meet your needs.”

By approaching mental health in the workplace with a combination of clear, strong communication and a tailored program, employers can strike a healthy balance between the business pressures created by productivity demands and information overload, and the employee’s need for well-being and job satisfaction.

With a psychologically healthy workplace, employers find that their employees experience higher morale and less illness, which translates into better organizational performance, lower turnover, improved safety, and reduced healthcare costs.

Effective workplace supports for mental health

APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence identifies the following five practices as important practices for creating and maintaining a psychologically healthy workplace:

  • Employee involvement

  • Work-life balance

  • Employee growth and development

  • Health and safety

  • Employee recognition

Employee involvement

Involve employees in decision making and give them more autonomy in their jobs. The feeling that they have some control over their circumstances counters stress among employees. Sometimes autonomy takes the form of a formal work group or committee, but on a day-to-day basis it plays out as managers putting their trust in the employee’s decision making and not micromanaging.

True employee involvement builds motivation and loyalty, ultimately supporting employee commitment and higher productivity.

Work-life balance

Acknowledge that employees have lives and responsibilities outside the workplace. When possible, offer flextime and telecommuting options. Provide assistance with childcare and eldercare. Make resources available to employees so that they can better manage their finances. And, offer leave options beyond the minimum required under FMLA.

Work-life balance supports go a long way toward reducing stress, absenteeism, and job burnout. Employees appreciate it when they don’t have to make a choice between their family and their job. Having that peace of mind leads to greater job satisfaction and productivity.

Employee growth and development

The lack of opportunity for growth and advancement was identified as the second largest contributor to job stress in APA’s 2016 Work and Well-Being survey. A lack of opportunity leads employees to lose hope and feel like they have no control over their future, which leads to job stress and burnout.

Providing on-the-job training and opportunities for job advancement are two of the most obvious ways to encourage employees. Coaching (with the help of a job coach) and mentoring can build strong working relationships between workers and management and also among peers. But, opportunity doesn’t have to stop within the boundaries of the workplace. Continuing education and tuition reimbursement are two more ways to support employee growth and development.

Supporting employee growth and development helps build the employee’s skills and abilities which will improve their productivity. It can also boost self-esteem and job satisfaction.

Health and safety

Most often we think of health and safety in terms of workplace safety and security. While these are important, workplace supports don’t stop there.

Providing resources and education about how to live a healthy lifestyle further support the work-life balance and long term health. Resources to help employees deal with life problems, like grief counselling, substance abuse, or mental health issues, not only help the employee but also help keep the workplace safe for everyone. But it must be okay (and not taboo) for employees to use these resources when needed. Fear of retribution often keeps people in crisis from seeking the help they need. And, of course, providing adequate health insurance, including coverage for mental health, is a cornerstone of supporting employee health and safety.

Supporting health and safety helps ensure employee well-being both in the short term and long term. In the long term these supports also lower overall healthcare and insurance costs.

Employee recognition

Reward employees, both as individuals and as a group, for their contributions to the workplace and company. Not all recognition has to be a formal ceremony or involve money. Sometimes, the best form of recognition is a heartfelt thank you. However, fair compensation and a competitive benefits package are the cornerstone of demonstrating employee value.

Recognition makes the employee feel appreciated and valued. It can lead to greater job satisfaction, loyalty, and motivation.

An investment in mental health makes for a better life

While not a small undertaking, the impact of building and maintaining a psychologically healthy workplace is felt far beyond the factory floor or office place. We spend at least one-third or our life at work, yet how work makes us feel influences every aspect of our life. When we feel that our workday has been spent on worthwhile things and our contribution has been valued, we can step away feeling content and not frustrated.