Wellness in the Workplace

A recent survey found that global wellness is an estimated $574 billion industry. Each of us continues to make our own “get healthy” resolutions – whether to exercise more, lose weight, eat healthier, stop smoking, etc.

The belief that healthy employees produce more and have a positive impact on the bottom line is also catching on. In 2014, “ninety percent of companies with more than 50,000 workers had wellness programs, as did half of U.S. employers with at least 50 workers” (Health Care News 2/2/14).

While clearly beneficial to employees, these corporate programs are primarily focused on physical health. They “typically offer on-site fitness centers, walking trails, corporate fitness contests, healthy cafeteria food and online or telephone health coaching” (Health Care News 2/2/14). “It may also include a biometric screening that checks cholesterol and glucose levels, blood pressure, body mass index and other risk factors for chronic disease” (Wellsource.com).

The quality of our health though goes beyond simply not being ill or living with a physically debilitating condition. When defining health, the World Health Organization also includes such mental and emotional parameters as “having a zest for living and the ability to laugh and have fun” and “the ability to deal with stress and bounce back from adversity.”

These qualities of mental and emotional health are a far cry from the media portrayals in recent years. To the general public, “mental health” conjures up strange, unfamiliar, sometimes scary behaviors or perhaps, simply weakness. Whatever the image, it’s not something positive or something with which most people want to be associated!

The fact is that mental health – like our physical health – is on a continuum from “wellness” to “developing problems” to “a serious disorder and/or chronic illness.” And just as each of us is physically healthy in some aspects, less healthy in others, the same is true of our mental well-being, our feelings about our life and possibilities. Resilience to adversity, outlook on life (optimistic, pessimistic or somewhere in between), self-esteem/self-confidence or inner sense of security differs for each of us, can change throughout our lives and even be developed in later life! These qualities also contribute greatly to our ability to perform well on-the-job.

“An estimated 20% of the adult working population experience a mental disorder in any year” (Mental Health First Aid Training USA, 2013). “Close to ten percent of workers are classified as – heavy alcohol users who drink large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis” (Substance and Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2005, 2007) “There is also significant co-occurrence of mental and substance disorders (up to 25%) and significant co-occurrence of mental and substance use disorders with other chronic medical conditions” (Substance and Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2007).

Those of us in the field know that mental disorders can be treated, recovery is possible and the sooner the intervention, the better the outcomes. Many workplace supervisors do not.

Without this information or the ability to recognize signs and symptoms of developing problems, supervisors will not be motivated to engage employees in important conversations. Nor will they feel comfortable making EAP/other service referrals or brainstorming ideas for reasonable accommodations. This along with social stigma and fear of discrimination keeps employees from seeking treatment and/or other support services… and from staying engaged and productive on-the-job.

Nearly two-thirds of individuals that experience a mental health and/or substance use disorder do not seek treatment. And while employee assistance programs (EAPs) are becoming increasingly available to employees, “the national average EAP utilization rate across all business and industry is 4.5% for a face-to-face program and 3% for a telephone model program.” (a service of REACH Employee Assistance and Work/Life Program).

Not only does this impact employee morale, it is costly to workplaces. “Mental illness and substance abuse annually cost employers an estimated $80 to $100 billion in indirect costs alone. (Finch, R.A. & Phillips, K., 2005, National Business Group on Health/Center for Prevention and Health Services). More days of work loss and work impairment are caused by mental illness than by other chronic health conditions, including arthritis, asthma, back pain, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. (Druss, B.G. & Rosenheck. R.A., 1999, Psychiatric Services) The Harvard Business Review found that workers suffering from depression lose the equivalent of 27 working days per year – 9 because of sick days or time taken out of work, and another 18 due to lost productivity. “Studies have shown that substance-abusing employees function at about two thirds of their capability and that employees who use drugs are three times more likely to be late for work” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2008).

How can managers and HR professionals increase EAP usage and/or other services, support that can help employees who are struggling? After all, these services are just as important as the fitness centers in helping employees stay healthy and on track!

Clearly management support and efforts to increase awareness and promote the EAP program “appear to facilitate its attractiveness to those employees who may benefit most from its services” (Harris & Fennell, 1988; Milne et al., 1994; Zarkin et al., 2001).

Other strategies have also been found to be effective. Creating a workplace open to conversations about differences, including all kinds of disabilities, can have a huge impact.

De-bunking myths about mental health challenges makes it easier for employees to reach out for help. Mental Health First Aid Training and mental health literacy discussions have proven to be effective stigma reduction tools. We also all benefit greatly from support from our co-workers. Imagine the impact if an employee felt just as comfortable sharing with a co-worker that they’re feeling “blue” as the discomfort they feel related to a sprained ankle.

The Washington DC-based accounting firm Ernst & Young has had great success in implementing a Diversity – Disabilities-Friendly work environment. Some of the things they do:

  • “A ‘Diversity is Valued’ message is conveyed to employees; respect, fairness and high expectations are communicated to all employees.
  • Regular opportunities are scheduled for people with disabilities, managers, supervisors to discuss issues around working with disabilities at Ernst & Young.
  • Employees are encouraged to watch short video clips in which true stories in the workplace are shared that teach something about how to be inclusive day to day.
  • Posters portraying employees with invisible disabilities are placed throughout their buildings and get people thinking differently.” (Ernst & Young, 2010)
  • Managers recognize that not every employee hired will prove to be a good “fit.”
  • All retained employees have access to advancement opportunities.

A supportive work environment and its impact on our emotional health can also be the glue that keeps employees engaged and on-the-job. In a Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute study of Certified Nursing Assistants in long-term care settings, frontline workers who stayed in their positions reported that they:

  • worked with fair-minded supervisors who showed interest in their lives,
  • had education and career development opportunities,
  • worked with nurses who valued their knowledge, skills and input,
  • were made to feel part of the care team,
  • had adequate resources to provide quality care, including ability to provide affection, support, and care to their residents.

Sometimes supervisors see significant changes in an employee’s behavior. For example, have you (or one of your supervisors) ever observed a highly motivated and engaged employee become increasingly lethargic and disinterested in their job, begin taking constructive feedback very personally or become withdrawn and uncommunicative?

These changes could be a result of mental health issues. Supervisors with strong relationships with their staff are better able to: (1) Notice “red flags” – when changes occur in employees’ behaviors/job performance; and (2) Engage employee in discussing identified performance issues. So whether or not this is a mental health issue, a supervisor will have the ability to make an appropriate referral before the problem mushrooms…and enable the employee to get back on track.

Wherever we sit within an organization, it’s important that all managers and supervisors be on board. When management at the helm and throughout the organization fully recognizes the value-added by these practices, the organization is now in a strong position to effectively implement them.

As more and more of our organizations look to introduce or build wellness programs, let’s keep in mind all the factors that contribute to good health. Yes, physical fitness enhances our health and well-being. So do workplaces in which differences are respected and open dialogue between supervisors and their staff is encouraged. “Feeling valued” is consistently listed by employees as a top reason for staying with a company. When employees truly feel that their contributions are valued, they are much more likely to be motivated to do what it takes to remain productive team members.

Marsha Lazarus has been involved in workforce development for over 30 years and been with MHANYS since 2009. To learn more about available resources, forums and training opportunities, contact Marsha at 518-434-0439 x224 or mlazarus@mhanys.org.

Have a Comment?