Companies feel push to improve mental health benefits

July 24, 2019

By Brian Rinker at Kaiser Health News on July 19, 2019

In the middle of a work project at a global corporate consulting firm, Katherine Switz was gripped with a debilitating bout of anxiety. Her body froze, her heart raced, her chest tightened, and her mind went blank, which made it nearly impossible for her to concentrate on a computer screen and do her work.

The anxiety lasted three months, likely related to her bipolar disorder. During that time, she felt unable to ask for help from her employers or co-workers, afraid that her poor performance would get her fired or passed over for promotion.

“I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t know what to do,” said Switz, 48, who was working as an associate business consultant in Washington, D.C., when the episode occurred.

While a diagnosis of cancer might garner sympathy at work and a casserole to take home to the family, an admission of a psychotic disorder might elicit judgment, fear and avoidance among co-workers. And even if such illnesses are not talked about much, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. have a mental health disorder, and 1 in 22 adults live with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, which includes certain mental health conditions, and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to help them get their jobs done. Some employers also offer mental health support for employees through employee assistance programs, known as EAPs, which provide services such as short-term counseling and referrals to treatment for substance use.

Even with those federal protections and existing employer programs, some employees can be reluctant to ask for help at work. An estimated 8 in 10 workers with a mental health condition don’t get treatment because of the shame and stigma associated with it, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

As a result, the pressure is growing on employers to adopt better strategies for dealing with mental health.

California has taken notice and last year passed legislation that makes it the first state to establish voluntary standards for workplace mental health.

Under the law, the state will create guidelines to help companies strengthen access to mental health care for their employees and reduce the stigma associated with it.

The measure aims to normalize workplace mental health in the same ways that employers already promote physical health, so that an employee having severe mental health symptoms feels comfortable taking medical leave, for example, just as a person with cancer might during periods of treatment and recovery.

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