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Strategies for Wellness at Work

Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace. What’s Your Strategy?

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No one wants to be an addict.   No one wants to been seen as weak or unable to cope with daily pressures and challenges.   Our society tends to value just focusing on being more and more resilient, powering through.  The message is that you must not be leadership material if you need time to acknowledge major life events or address stress related health issues.  Those messages become even louder the higher up you are in many organizations.

Is that working? How is that approach impacting leadership at all levels in your organization? What’s the cost to the company?

Some facts to consider:

  • Workers who experienced a recent organizational change are 4x more likely to report physical health symptoms at work (APA, 2017)

  • Occupational stress costs U.S. employers about $300 billion a year (APA, 2017)

  • More than 70% of individuals with alcohol or illicit drug use continue to maintain employment.  (John F. Kelly, PhD, Harvard Health Blog, June 30, 2017)

  • The annual cost of a single employee with an untreated substance abuse disorder ranges from $2600 in agriculture to more than $13,000 in the information and communications sectors. J Occup Environ Med. 2017 Nov; 59(11): 1063–1071.

  • Between 2000 and 2016, the suicide rate rose by 30% across the US. (CDC)

We have growing rates of suicide, overdoses and addiction in the U.S.    There are many organizations that still quietly marginalize anyone that is seen as different, neglect to address a working culture that still stigmatizes mental health issues, and gives lip service to addressing diversity and inclusion issues, including those of gender and ageism.  All of this can lead to employees dealing with stress through self-medication, and self-medication can turn into addiction. It is costing businesses through benefits costs, turn over and lack of employee engagement. The biggest cost, unfortunately, is when someone loses their life because they didn’t get the help they needed.

The vast majority of medical and research professionals working to address addiction issues recognize addiction as a disease, just like cancer or heart disease.   But our society still tends to see mental health in a very different way. It is still stigmatized

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.

Addiction affects neurotransmission and interactions within reward structures of the brain.  (American Society of Addiction Medicine)

We want a workforce that is more engaged, more innovative and able to deal with the ever changing world of the 21st century.  However, there is no magic bullet to solve this.  The way our brains are wired over thousands of years often does not help us deal with the information overloaded world we are working in or the daily stressors like financial insecurity, lack of  job security, and whether or not the skills we have will be useful in a few years.

So, what can be done?

The first step is getting a clear picture of how stressed your organization is, and if there are groups of people or locations that have higher stress than others.  

  • There are validated assessment tools that you can use.

  • If you have a wellness champions network and they are your unofficial leaders, the go-to people in the organization, bring them into the conversation.  Ask them what they think is causing the most stress.

  • Take a look at EAP uptake and top 10 RX drugs by usage, not just cost, over the past five years.  See if there has been an increase in prescription drugs related to mental health and any substantial increase in opioids.

The next challenge is to understand to what level mental health issues are being stigmatized and if people know about the resources you have in place.  

Having an initiative to support a more thriving work culture, addressing stress and addiction issues should be part of an overall strategy, particularly because of the large number of people that are not getting help.  It has a personal cost to them and a cost to the organization.

Changing the culture so that mental health is seen in the same light as diabetes or heart disease takes time, but worth the effort.   

Take the time to understand:

  • Your organization’s unique challenges and stressors

  • Which groups of people or locations are most at risk

  • If the resources you have in place are working

  • What strategy can work best for your organization

Over time, your organization can have much better mental well-being built into your working environment. This can help your organization save money, have a healthier workforce and potentially save lives.


About the Author

Mim Senft is the founder of Motivity Partnerships a workplace wellness consultancy that offers an integrated solution with vetted wellness partners that work for your culture and your team. She has over 20 years of corporate experience in project management, benefits design and wellness program strategy and implementation.  She is a certified as a Worksite Wellness Specialist through the National Wellness Institute; has her GBA group benefits designation through the International Foundation of Benefit Professionals (IFEBP); her property and casualty insurance certification, Accredited Advisor in Insurance (AAI), through the Insurance Institute of America; and became a certified yoga instructor in 2006.  Mim is a regular speaker at conferences and roundtable discussions on topics related to employee benefits, corporate wellness/wellbeing programs, and keeping a competitive edge in today’s workplace. Mim Senft is also a co-founder of Global Women 4 Wellbeing (GW4W), a non-profit that empowers more healthy female leadership at all levels.