Making workplaces better for people struggling with mental health will make work better for everyone

At the end of May, tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open due to anxiety and depression. A few months later, Simone Biles missed a large portion of the Olympics due to her mental health reasons. These and other cases have drawn much-needed attention to the toll of specific mental health conditions – for employees and employers – in workplaces that go far beyond notable athletics to warehouses, offices and store floors.

The evidence is clear that the cost of mental illness in the workplace is large and widespread, and that it accumulates over the life of the worker. Approximately 20% of working adults report serious symptoms of mental illness over the course of a month, and half will have a problem over the course of their lives. Think about that for a moment. This likely means that one in five of your employees may have significant mental health issues while reading this.

While illnesses vary in severity and nature, symptoms can interfere with productivity in ways that have devastating consequences for employers and employees alike. Depression, for example, can make small tasks seem daunting and can lead people to become irritable and angry at others. Anxiety can make it difficult for people to meet deadlines, participate in meetings, or give presentations. Experiencing symptoms of mental illness can cause people to lose work altogether. In some cases, symptoms of mental illness cause people to lose or quit their jobs.

If employers want a future of work where businesses continue to grow and thrive, we need responses that acknowledge the reality of mental health symptoms, allow flexibility and adaptation at work, and maintain productivity.

The good news is that such solutions do exist. Disturbances caused by mental illness at work can be interrupted, by a combination of high-quality clinical interventions, accommodations and support in the workplace. The changes in the workplace brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic provide new opportunities to put these solutions in place.

For example, the rapid expansion of remote mental health during a pandemic could make it easier for workers to access treatment by reducing time and travel costs for care. Also, after a year and a half of practice, many companies and workers are more comfortable working remotely using Zoom meetings, texts instead of verbal communication chains, and alternate work schedules. Just as closed annotations and text readers have made it easier for people with hearing and visual impairments to participate in the workforce, so technologies that facilitate remote work and care may provide mentally ill workers with more opportunities to stay healthy and engaged.

These interventions can help today’s workforce and 2040’s workforce as well. The first symptoms of mental illness often appear in youth, disrupting career paths and making it more difficult to gain the experience and cognitive and interpersonal skills that establish a platform for success. People with mental health conditions may be directed toward jobs with skills that pay less and are more vulnerable to foreign competition and automation. This is a loss of human potential that accumulates over time and leaves people who have suffered from mental illness in the past with lower wages, lower savings, fewer assets, and a greater likelihood of relying on public assistance. The result is a wasted spiral of lost human talent, workplace investments, and economic productivity.

Therapy and accommodations, along with new technologies, may help young mentally ill workers gain experience and expand the range of jobs available to them.

Making workplaces and jobs more flexible in terms of time, place, and nature of interaction would be of immediate benefit to people with mental illness. It is also likely to produce benefits beyond concerns about mental illness.

Equipment that assists people with mental illness can also address the full range of factors that complicate and disrupt people’s lives and affect their work—almost everyone. This “pavement cut effect” is named after the unexpected benefits that arose from those indentations in sidewalks (sidewalk cuts). Originally intended to expand wheelchair access to sidewalks, it turns out they have many beneficiaries—from parents pushing strollers to tourists pulling wheelchairs. Likewise, increased flexibility and support in the workplace can benefit large numbers of workers and employers.

Most importantly, these technologies have the potential to transform workers with mental illness today and in the future. If more employers adopt the treatments and amenities that have been shown to work in tandem with the innovations emerging from the pandemic, we can create a future of work that is more equitable and economically vibrant for individuals with mental illness and the companies that employ them.

Sherry Glade is on the Geisinger Board of Directors. The authors have not received financial support from any company or person for this article or from any company or person with a financial or political interest in this article. Other than the foregoing, they are not currently an officer, director, or member of the board of directors of any organization involved in this article.

The Brookings Institution is funded by endowment support from a variety of foundations, corporations, governments, and individuals. The list of donors can be found in our online annual reports Here. The findings, interpretations and conclusions in this report are solely those of the author(s) and are not affected by any donation.

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