Supporting people with mental health conditions in the workplace: a business case

The economic consequences of poor mental health are staggering. It is estimated in a World Economic Forum and Harvard School of Public Health study that the cumulative global impact of mental disorders in terms of lost economic output will amount to $16.3 trillion between 2011 and 2030.

As stated by the World Economic Forum1, however, recent evidence shows that treating mental health conditions is a cost effective way to promote both wellbeing and economic prosperity. A report funded by beyondblue and the National Mental Health Commission in Australia2 calculated that every dollar an organization spends on effective workplace mental health policy may generate $2.30 in financial benefits.

Beyond economics, however, employers are also powerful agents of change. An organizational climate that promotes wellbeing and modifies the risk factors for stress can be developed by targeting workplace policies as well as individual needs. Similarly, effective treatments and resources exist for common mental health conditions, and it is simple to facilitate access to care for those who could benefit from it.

As part of the the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Mental Health, a practical toolkit to promote a mentally healthy workplace has been developed, with the aim of supporting individuals – no matter where they sit in an organization – and building a case for tackling mental illness in the workplace. Seven key actions can lead to mentally healthier workplaces:

  1. Consider your unique workplace environment and how it can be adapted to promote better mental health. Every workplace is unique.

  2. Consider the combination of motivators of the organizational leaders and employees who have taken action on workplace mental health; for example, they may be interested in protecting mental health and wellbeing of staff, doing the right thing for staff, and benefits in managing costs and liabilities.

  3. Become aware of the policies and strategies put in place by other companies who have taken action (five case studies are provided in the toolkit).

  4. Each organization will require a unique set of workplace mental health policies and practices. In developing these, identify the specific needs of your organization and staff.

  5. In practice, workplace mental health strategies will require both internal and external partnerships. A successful initiative will benefit from collaboration, with, for example, local training programs, human resources, and employees.  

  6. Find out where to go if you or a colleague needs help. Acknowledge that seeking help can be challenging, and that the important thing is to be there for colleagues who may need support.

  7. Get started. Mental and physical health are intimately linked.

What do we know about work and bipolar disorder?

The research is mixed. On one hand, some research has shown that unemployment rates in people with bipolar disorder are much higher than in the general population, with around 40-60% of people with the condition being unemployed, often because they didn’t do as well as expected at their jobs (this is called workplace under-performance3).
 Other studies have found that up to 40-50% of people with the condition experience a decline in job status and income3. On the other hand, other research has found that job status for those with bipolar disorder stabilizes over about 6 years in a position -- even for those with severe forms of the illness4. Furthermore, the high rate of unemployment found in some studies may be smaller, because it may not include everyone with bipolar disorder. For example, some who are doing well at work may not have told their co-workers or employers that they live with the condition due to fear of stigma in the workplace (i.e., negative stereotypes directed at them at work). People with bipolar disorder have found that stigma can negatively affect their work performance if they do not have a supportive work environment5,6.

The good news is that research suggests that improvements in the work environment, such as support from employers and co-workers, can benefit people with bipolar disorder -- and are, in fact, critical for successful work outcomes7. Although we recognize that not all approaches for employers to support their employees with mental health conditions will be suited for all work environments and job types, there are common areas of support to consider.

The first step is education.  

Disability and anti-discrimination laws protect the work rights of people living with bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions. Some laws may even require a person living with a mental health condition to tell (‘disclose’) the condition to their employer. Disclosure8,9 of a mental health condition is a difficult decision, given the reasonable concern that employers may discriminate against the person disclosing their condition, as well as the possibility of negative attitudes from co-workers5,6. Supervisors and co-workers can be excellent sources of support. As an organizational leader, you can ensure that the workplace culture is a supportive one for your staff and that it meets the legal standards set in place within your own country, state/province, and organization (be aware that rights and laws vary by location).

In addition, learn about the condition itself. A person who lives with bipolar disorder will integrate much more successfully into work settings if there is a good fit between the person and their job, if the person has a strong support system in place both at home and in the workplace, and if the person is in recovery from mood episodes10Aspects of the condition that may impact work functioning include difficulties with cognition (memory, focus, problem solving in fast-paced environments), depressive symptoms, and medication side effects11. There is great variation in how people experience their conditions, so, if appropriate invite your employee to share their individual experiences with mental health, if they wish. The more you understand, the better able you will be as an employer to provide appropriate work accommodations, set realistic expectations, and provide a sense of positivity and empowerment -- all critical facets in the successful management of a mental health condition in the workplace.

Key  Messages

  • People with bipolar disorder can flourish in the workplace: a supportive environment is key.
  • Stigma has been found to negatively affect the performance of employees living with mental health conditions.
  • Every dollar spent on effective workplace mental health policy may generate $2.30 in benefits to an organization.

  Take Action

  • Learn about mental health conditions. The more you understand, the better able you will be as an employer to facilitate a mentally healthy workplace.
  • Make connections in your community. Find out where to go if you or one of your colleagues needs help for a mental health condition.
  • Employers are powerful agents of change in promoting mental health. Get started today with one organizational change and see what benefits follow for your organization, workplace culture, and community.

  Learn more

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with the generous support of the Laurel Foundation