Mental health is one of the most pressing challenges executives face. The numbers are sobering. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a grassroots advocacy organization, about 1 in 5 adults in the United States — or 43.8 million people — experiences a mental illness in a given year. What’s more, about 10 million of those people suffer from a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
Forget wondering if mental illness is a problem among your talent. It is.
In fact, if you’re a CEO, it’s probably more than likely that an immediate member of your executive team has faced challenges related to mental illness. It’s even more likely that CEOs themselves have struggled with mental illness over the course of their careers. After all, these are incredibly stressful jobs.
Mental health affects everybody’s job performance. It doesn’t matter if you’re the summer intern, the janitor, a marketing coordinator, the chief financial officer or chairman of the board of directors: Mental health is a major burden on every company. A 2008 paper published in the American Journal of Psychiatry estimated that serious mental illness costs the U.S. as much as $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year. That’s a good chunk of change.
If mental health isn’t a risk that CEOs are factoring into their businesses, it should be. Because the more and more mental health is ignored, the worse it becomes, and the worse it becomes, the more it eats away at your employees’ happiness — and the more it affects the firm’s performance.
Worse yet, if you think the statistics on mental illness are hard to swallow, think of the amount of people suffering from mental illness in your organization that aren’t public about it. Only 41 percent of U.S. adults with a mental health condition have received mental health services in the past year, according to NAMI. That suggests that more than half of the people plagued by some form of mental illness aren’t actively seeking help for it.
Not only is mental illness difficult on people; it’s hard for the individuals suffering from it to come to grips with it to the point that they’re willing to get help. I know this from personal experience dealing with anxiety and panic attacks. When I first started experiencing symptoms related to these conditions a few years ago, my first reaction was to “gut it out” and hope they went away. They didn’t. Even as the problems persisted, it was difficult to convince myself I needed professional help. But once I did, and I became more open about it, things improved dramatically, to the point where each episode is now a rare occurrence.
Part of my story is reflected in the larger social stigma associated with mental health. But in business, this stigma is often compounded by the fact that workers are expected to check their problems at the door when they come to work. Historically, the thinking has been that workers suffering from mental health issues at work should deal with it on their own time and focus instead on doing their jobs.
This sort of thinking needs to stop. Ignoring the costs people and organizations pay because of mental health is no longer acceptable. It’s time for executives to step up and erase the mental health stigma. More important, it’s time for executives to be more open about their own mental health challenges. The more CEOs and other business leaders are open about it, the more the rest of the organization is going to realize that it’s OK to talk about it.
Because one of the best ways to fight the costs associated with mental health and well-being is to start a conversation about the topic. Investing in employee assistance providers, or EAP, is a start, but for executives serious about addressing this persistent and costly talent challenge, they need to be the ones in the limelight inviting their employees to speak out on the issue. They also need to create a culture where being honest about mental illness isn’t taboo.
Dealing with a mental health challenge is hard enough; it’s even harder when people feel they have no one to turn to, both at home and at work, to help ease the problem. It’s time for leaders to take charge.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor.
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