Mental illness is a catchall phrase that joins two very scary words: mental and illness. It is the phrase of choice of the various mental health organizations to describe a plethora of psychological disorders.
Many workers are simply not taking advantage of the health-care insurance programs and EAPs available in many companies either because they are unaware of the available help or because of the social shame still attached to seeking out mental health care. Sadly, many workers conceal and hide their disorders rather than seek assistance. And many employers don't have established screenings that would support workers to seek out help in a private, confidential environment.
As a result, workers with mental disabilities do not have the same opportunity to contribute and to achieve their potential because of barriers they face when trying to obtain competitive employment. In the United States, the unemployment rate for individuals with psychiatric disabilities is between 80 to 90 percent.
Psychologists often write about the emotional state of the American workforce. And, sooner or later, managers peer into these findings hoping to adapt them to their own particular work-a-day world. But a recent report conducted by the Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group and the National Mental Health Association found that 25 percent (about 28 million) of the U.S. workforce suffers at least one mental or substance abuse disorder each year. That's a staggering one out of four workers!
About 66 percent of that 28 million have never been diagnosed, and just 14 percent have received treatment in the past year. Unfortunately, the myth is that if you are at work you are healthy, but this is simply not the case.
The most common mental disorders among American workers aged 18-54 are alcohol dependence, major depression and social phobia.
The report also found that companies pay more than $17 billion a year in unproductive wages to workers with mental disorders: $5 billion for missed workdays and $12 billion for lost productivity. Employers aren't the only losers. Workers with mental disabilities earn on average 22 percent less than those without them.
The first of its kind, this large-scale study and its findings will certainly be analyzed and questioned for a long time to come.
For many Americans, working provides a sense of self-worth and a source of self-esteem. Work offers many benefits besides a means to pay the bills. It provides a sense of purpose, social interaction and an opportunity to contribute to the community.
Understanding mental illness is every manager's responsibility.
SOURCES: Robin Hertz, Ph.D., senior director, population studies, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group, New York City; Mary Graham, senior policy advisor, National Mental Health Association, Alexandria, Va.; Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group study, 2002.