In the US, tens of millions of people each year are affected by a mental illness. Yet it still remains a taboo subject that employers struggle to deal with.

When we carried out a survey of HR professionals’ absence and leave management policies in November 2017, 90 percent of respondents said that their company is supportive when it comes to providing resources/accommodations for employees with mental health conditions.


My gut reaction from past experience is that this isn’t the case. And statistics from government reports and surveys agree.

Around 300,000 people with a long-term mental health condition lose their jobs each year in the UK alone according to a report commissioned by the British government. In 2014, 80 percent of people with mental illnesses in the US were unemployed, yet 60 percent want to work.

A BBC survey also revealed that half of people in the UK would be unlikely to tell their boss about problems such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder.

This seems anything but supportive. Our survey of HR professionals in the US also revealed that 70 percent of companies have a policy for paid leave for mental health problems.

Of course, this is far from having a “policy” for dealing with mental health issues in the workplace.

The legal side

If you live in many parts of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, or anywhere with a public health system, then paid leave and mental health work-related issues aren’t so complex.

If you live and work in the US, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) of 2008 requires health insurers and group health plans to provide the same level of benefits for mental and/or substance use treatment and services that they do for medical/surgical care. However poor implementation has led to concerns that added costs will stop people seeking treatment.

There is also the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prevents employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against people with serious health problems. However, the employee has to disclose the problem to start with, something many are not happy to do (half of people in the UK as we mentioned earlier).

And what of those people who work in companies with fewer than 15 employees?

Michelle Riba, a professor of psychiatry and the associate director of the University of Michigan Depression Center, told HuffPost: 

“Studies have shown that [more accepting] workplaces have happier employees with better productivity,” 

She added: “Unfortunately, many places are not like that, and even certain types of jobs aren’t accommodating to that.”

Barriers to creating a mental health policy

According to Stephanie Evans, HR Business Partner at employment Law and Human Resources specialists EffectiveHRM, she has yet to come across an organization that has a dedicated mental health policy. The companies that do have strategies in place tend to be larger organizations that already have stress and absence management, and disability policies in place.

“SMEs, for example, often don’t have the resources to create a policy, or do anything about the minimal legal requirements,” she explains. “Small businesses often only have one HR professional, and they simply don’t have the time to help staff that much, even when they would like to.”

Despite the public prominence of mental health awareness, there is also a lack of understanding and fear. This could be a fear of the condition, or a fear of doing something wrong.

“Mental health problems are not visible, they are hard to understand, and they come and go, which makes it harder for companies to know what to do,” says Evans. “The truth is that there is no simple answer.”

What should a mental health policy include?

According to Evans, the mere existence of a mental health policy alone is not going to change anything.

“It needs to be part of a wider strategy for the business to enable the workforce to be productive, happy and motivated employees,” she says.

With benefits of a mental health policy including the reduction in mental health sickness absence, and the average length of absence per episode, as well as increased productivity, a more positive working atmosphere, and a general improvement in tolerance and understanding between coworkers, it’s important to get it right.

Evans says that companies should instead create a mental health framework or policy that reflects the needs of the business and its employees, rather than downloading a generic policy and adding it to a policy manual or handbook.

According to Evans, your mental health policy should include the following points if it is to make a real difference:

It’s also key to provide effective training to managers in absence management policies, how to apply them, and what to do to ensure they run as smoothly as possible for all concerned.

Evans also advocates having an open attitude to health conditions, including mental health, where employees are able to talk about their condition and obtain support, advice and guidance without fear of what it will mean for their job security, reputation and how others will respond to them.

Support your employees

The comprehensive report produced for the UK government also included recommendations for employers as to how they can make changes to job roles and working environments on a per case basis. These include:

Incorporate employee wellness

One trend that has been emerging over the past few years that could contribute towards better (or worse) support of mental health issues at work is employee wellness. When we put together an article on the top employee wellness apps last year, we found that many of these apps contained features that help with employees’ mental health.

LifeWorks, a joint venture between WorkAngel mobile employee engagement platform and human resource solution provider Ceridian, is one example. It combines mental wellbeing, employee assistance programs, perks, recognition, personal growth, and community engagement.

LifeWorks combines perks, rewards, and community engagement with mental wellbeing

Lyra Health is another example, with this app specifically focusing on the mental health side of employee wellness. It provides direct access to therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists through live video therapy, web chat or in-person appointments, as well as self-help resources.

It is also working on being able to offer therapists who work on site to companies.

Then there is Whil, which aims to help employees reduce stress and help them with health, performance, relationship, and sleep issues.

“We offer thousands of digital training sessions that are mapped to a company’s biggest stressors and healthcare cost-drivers, all rooted in science, mindfulness and positive psychology,” says Justin Keller, senior marketing director at Whil.

Don’t neglect financial health

According to a survey, a quarter of people are performing poorly at work due to money worries. Mary Hannah Burwell, marketing manager at Financial Wellness Benefit platform Questis, says:

“Most wellness programs in the past focused only on physical and mental wellness. However, financial wellness benefits are beneficial not only for employees but also for their employers, as they improve employees’ financial situations so they can be more productive, happier, and overall better workers.”

There are apps such as Questis, which helps with everything from a rainy day savings fund to paying off student loans, to saving for retirement – all paired with a live certified financial planner that they can chat with at any time, as well as Lifeworks and Virgin Pulse which offer financial support.

UK retailer John Lewis has already implemented financial wellbeing initiatives for its staff. It runs financial education seminars, offers specialist support lines, and has also spent over £500,000 on loans and gifts for struggling employees, as well as joining a retail credit union.

Where can I get help to deal with mental illness in the workplace?

Here are some useful resources that can help you create a mental health policy, get support, and better deal with mental illness in the workplace. Some of these resources may be country/region specific:

If you’re looking for help to find HR or employee wellness software to help you better deal with mental illness in the workplace, then you can check out our software scorecard for HR. The scorecard allows you to select and prioritize the features you require at the necessary price point. It functions as an independent way of creating a shortlist of apps that you want to further investigate to see if they meet your needs.