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The True Costs of Employee Mental Health

Dawn Metcalf

Dawn Metcalf

the True costs of employee mental health

About the Author

Dawn Metcalf, Pathways at Work

Dawn Metcalf (Ed.M., Harvard) is a published author, educator and prevention specialist with a focus on sex, gender, orientation and self-esteem. Ms. Metcalf currently works as an instructional designer, program developer and freelance writer dedicated to improving individual and organizational mental health.

Read more of her writing →

When people talk about “the bottom line” in business, they usually refer to the total costs versus total payoffs or benefits. However, the truth is that the bottom line is actually the least someone is willing to accept, either monetarily, emotionally, psychologically or in performance metrics.

The bottom line is the barest minimum, and that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal. Your company’s aim is not to just survive, but thrive. Therefore, a successful “bottom line” should always account for employee mental health because their productivity is directly linked to your business’ success.

While it is difficult to quantify all the ways in which mental health can impact a company, there clearly is an impact and it’s costing billions. Annual cost projections to the US labor force are over $50 billion for depressive disorders and comorbidity, while the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported, “Mental health conditions cost employers more than $100 billion and 217 million lost workdays each year.” It’s an epidemic that follows the pandemic.

Management has a clear stake in maintaining the efficacy and commitment of their workforce in order to continue to be successful in the marketplace. Today’s employees have clear expectations about the costs and benefits of their work, which include feeling valued and effective as well as supported and respected as part of a team identity.

Millennials, in particular, are being advised to seek out these interpersonal connections, set clear boundaries and quit before the situation becomes toxic. Best practice is for employers to address these potential problems before they start and be proactive in providing employees with workplace support programs and mental health benefits.

Addressing each challenge before or as it starts to interfere with workplace productivity can save both mental stress and the bottom line.

Flimp Communications illustrates the prevalence of mental health in the workplace with this mental health infographic.

Check In When They Check Out

Absenteeism numbers soared during the pandemic, when employers and employees alike struggled with COVID, quarantining and preventative measures to reduce potential exposure. Post-pandemic, workers are still reeling under the mental and physical aftereffects as well as the transitional changes between hybrid and remote work and returning to the workplace and workforce under the same roof.

Absenteeism — when an employee is not present at work — is easier to address than presenteeism — which is when an employee is physically present, but unable to focus or be effective due to stress or other mental health factors can cut productivity by a third or more. The costs involved in lost productivity vary widely from industry to industry, but all companies are affected when their workforce is unable to complete their tasks.

Heather Smith, Chief People Officer and Senior Account Executive at Flimp Communications, suggests One-on-one check-ins outside of daily working meetings go a long way to keep the focus on employee well-being and happiness.

Eyes Off the Clock and On the Prize

Our sense of time and efficacy has been drastically affected by the pandemic, the necessity for remote work. One UK study, on the passage of time during the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown, found more than 80% of those surveyed felt that their sense of time was distorted. Social isolation, confinement, boredom and stress have contributed to this unnerving feeling of lost time or being out of time. 

Employees suffer under the expectations of varying schedules and the challenge of separating the expectations of time spent “at work” and time spent “at home.” This warped perception of time and constantly feeling “behind” add to the additional sense of frustration, devaluation and burnout.

Management can counteract this by creating value-adds and positive measures of progress including mindful ways to think more about results than focusing on time management. Ruth Ogden, the experimental psychologist who headed the passage of time study mentioned above said, “There are real potential benefits for well-being, mental health and quality of life in asking, ‘How does my time make me feel?'” 

Acknowledging and validating employee achievements is one way to raise employee satisfaction and reinforce a sense of accomplishment, value and belonging, and disperses feelings of micromanagement, failure and ineptitude.

Trust Is a Fragile Thing

Knowing that you’re seen as competent, valuable and trustworthy can be a real encouragement when you are feeling down. Employee acknowledgement not only cements a good relationship in place, but reinforces it with a measurable outcome: trust. 

Karli Waldon, President and Chief Operating Officer of Talent War Group, a management consulting and executive search firm, says, “Measuring outcomes and achievements rather than hours spent is essential. Setting clear, measurable expectations, goals and timelines is vital to overcoming feelings of distrust on both sides.” 

In fact, surveillance software and micromanaging actually harms productivity. Kristin Stoller, Deputy Business Editor at Forbes, reported, “A new study released by research firm Gartner shows that employees are nearly two times more likely to pretend to be working when their employers use tracking systems to monitor their output.” These sorts of tactics sow resentment and distrust, which undermines positive feelings of security and capability, and can negatively affect loyalty and lead to attrition. By focusing on the positive outcomes, employers and employees can produce better results and cooperative expectations.

Unplug and Plug Back In!

For all that Zoom and the internet did to help keep us connected through the physical isolation of the global pandemic, the social isolation became much more pronounced and resulted in an even greater disconnect. Our reliance on digital interaction has had an overall negative effect on our individual productivity and sense of belonging, which is detrimental to productivity and self-esteem. 

“What we know, at this point, is that we have evidence that replacing your real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to your well-being,” says Holly Shakya, an assistant professor in Global Public Health at University of California, San Diego. Businesses are all about relationships and relationship building — both within the company and out to clients, partners, media and investors.

On-screen interactions may not be as emotionally satisfying as real-world relationships and are not a substitute for physical interconnectivity. Providing interpersonal, unstructured time with colleagues  is key to encouraging good employee relationships and improved mental health as part of a corporate wellness program. Without the reinforcement of our basic social needs for human connection, companies are compromising their own efficacy and financial goals. The cost of a pizza party, barbecue, holiday party or social hour is minimal compared to the billions at stake and essential for human connection..

The true costs of mental health cannot be measured in dollars alone, but Pathways offers a Workplace Mental Health Cost Calculator to help determine the actual impact of employee mental illness and stress on your workforce and workplace, and offer employee wellness programs that can both save money and help raise your company’s efficiency.

Bottom line: you can afford to implement a mental health plan and you can’t afford not to. If you are interested in learning more about Pathways at Work programs, schedule a meeting to get started today.

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