‘Mental Health Days’ Are Real, and Corporate America Is Going to Accept That — or Not — at Their Own Peril

Even though the stigma surrounding mental illness has become the topic of national conversation, most people working in corporate America will admit the discussion hasn’t made it very far in the boardroom.

If you disclose to your boss that you’re depressed and need some time off, even for one day, chances are you won’t be well-received or understood. As a result, small mental health problems turn into significant ones, resulting in lost productivity.

Some organizations, such as IBM, Johnson & Johnson and McDonnell Douglas, are saving millions after implementing mental health outreach practices.

The website The Street reported in June that statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that depressed workers miss 200 million days of work each year, costing employers $17 to $44 billion.1

“The CDC notes many employees with either chronic mental health issues or disease are not likely to disclose their illness in the workplace to avoid being stigmatized or marginalized,” reported journalist Gina Ragusa. “Nondisclosure often results in exacerbating the individual’s condition or state, which can result in a vicious cycle of missed days and lost productivity.”

“Nondisclosure often results in exacerbating the individual’s condition or state, which can result in a vicious cycle of missed days and lost productivity.”– Journalist Gina Ragusa

In an interview with The Street, Colleen Fairbanks, behavioral health coordinator at Interactive Health, explains that the lost productivity doesn’t come solely in the form of missed days. “In fact some people think of mental illness as something severe where the individual just can’t go to work. So while the employee still goes to work, they muddle through their day feeling pretty terrible.”

Companies Promote Mental Health Wellness, Save Millions

Tarrant County, Texas, established The Mental Health Connection in September 1999 after a man walked into a church, killed seven people, and injured many others before turning the gun on himself. The man had struggled with an untreated mental illness.

The Mental Health Connection includes representatives from Dallas-Fort Worth area healthcare providers, advocacy groups, elected officials, educators, representatives from the court system, caregivers, clergy and others.

The Mental Health Connection published a report several years ago demonstrating how various major companies have saved money by being more responsive to their employees’ mental health needs.2 Those companies include:

  • IBM, which saved a half million dollars by assessing employees’ mental health risks in 2003 and following up with outreach, medical claims analysis and Employee Assistance Plan referrals.
  • Johnson & Johnson, which saved an average $8.5 million per year from 1995 to 1999 by integrating health and wellness programs.
  • Pittsburgh Plate Glass Industries (PPG), which made mental health counseling available to employees. Almost two-thirds of employees who received counseling said work “was much improved or improved” as a result of receiving counseling.
  • McDonnell Douglas boasted a $4 return for every $1 invested in employee mental health, according to the report. Savings were discovered via reduced absenteeism, fewer medical claims, and “sharply reduced turnover,” the report claimed.
  • Chrysler saw psychiatric hospital admissions among employees go down 12 percent from one year over another and reduced the length of stay in mental hospitals by 22 percent by implementing company programs that achieved earlier detection of mental health issues. They implemented “better psychiatric health benefits programs” to achieve “greater success in matching diagnosis and treatment methods.”

Signs that a Co-Worker May Need Mental Health Treatment

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recently breathed new life into corporate awareness of mental health stigma. The advocacy organization launched “Stigmafree Company” on July 6. The initiative is intended to “highlight and cultivate a company culture of caring and enhanced engagement around mental health,” according to a NAMI news release.3

Seven companies have agreed to participate in the initiative so far, including Coty, EY, FOX Sports, Kenneth Cole Productions, Participant Media, Philosophy Skin Care Products and Wear Your Label.

“Nearly 60 million Americans are affected by mental illness and they often encounter stigma or invisible barriers to acceptance and understanding, including in the workplace,” said Mary Gilberti, NAMI’s chief executive officer. “NAMI is thrilled to have these seven businesses partner with us as Stigmafree companies and commit to joining us in our fight to end the sigma of mental illness through education, increased awareness and social action.”

According to the NAMI news release, “Eight in 10 workers say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment for a mental health condition. In addition, mental illness costs the economy about $200 billion in lost earnings each year. Companies committed to the Stigmafree company partnership are helping reverse these negative effects by creating a caring culture that recognizes mental illness and can better respond.”

According to The Campaign to Change Direction, a national mental health wellness initiative that includes leaders from the private sector, here are five signs that your co-worker may be suffering and in need of mental health assistance:4

  • Experiencing a sudden change in personality
  • Being uncharacteristically angry, anxious, agitated or moody
  • Choosing to withdraw and isolate oneself from others
  • Ceasing to care for oneself and engaging in risky behavior
  • Feeling overcome with hopelessness and overwhelmed by their circumstances

Talking to Your Boss About Your Mental Health

Occasionally it is a good idea to talk to your employer about your mental health challenges, particularly if you are seeking treatment for them and for co-occurring substance abuse issues. However, even in a climate of increasing awareness of mental health conditions, the decision to disclose sensitive information should be made carefully.

According to NAMI, it’s best to disclose your situation when you are well so you can do so calmly. It’s recommended to reveal your diagnosis only when it serves a purpose. “You may tell your employer in order to receive accommodations at work,” NAMI suggests. “There are nearly as many reasons to disclose as there are to stay silent. Different people have to decide when and if the risk is right.”

NAMI recommends making a list of the pros and cons of staying silent as well as those for disclosing. “Consider the potential negative impact on things like stigma from coworkers against your need for special accommodations, which are considered part of your civil rights. Before you share information about your condition, you should learn about your legal rights and also take into consideration your work environment.”5

In a Huffington Post blog, Sigurd Ackeman, president and medical director of Silver Hill, a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut, discusses why news of Philosophy Skin Care pledging $10 million to mental health research was notable.

“Clearly it is a wonderfully bold, substantive initiative by a forward-looking company willing to talk about mental illness and back that talk up with a meaningful action,” he wrote.6 “But its very newsworthiness also highlights a distressing fact. It is an indicator that while corporate support for mental health research, treatment and awareness efforts is uncommon, nearly non-existent, many other health issues receive regular and substantial corporate philanthropy.”

He encourages readers to imagine the impact of a few major corporations stepping up to take similar actions in the fight against mental illness, just as many corporations already do for causes like breast cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and autism.

“We need to shift our collective view of mental illness, making the millions fighting in silence and isolation feel they can acknowledge their need for help and empowering them to pursue it,” he writes. “This is much more likely to happen if corporate America finally steps up and leads the way.”


1.Ragusa, G. (2016, June 2). The Street. Supportive Mental Health Environment Can Save Companies Millions. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from https://www.thestreet.com/story/13595118/1/supportive-mental-health-environment-can-save-companies-millions.html
2.The Mental Health Connection, Tarrant County, Texas. (2007). Mental Illness Within the Workplace (2007). Retrieved July 11, 2016, from http://www.mentalhealthconnection.org/pdfs/brc-final-report-full.pdf
3.National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2016, July 7). NAMI Launches Stigmafree Company Partnership. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from https://www.nami.org/Press-Media/Press-Releases/2016/NAMI-Launches-Stigmafree-Company-Partnership
4.The Campaign to Change Direction. Know the Five Signs. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from http://www.changedirection.org/know-the-five-signs/
5.National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2016). Succeeding at Work. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Living-with-a-Mental-Health-Condition/Your-Rights-in-the-Workplace
6.Ackeman, S. (2016, March 16). A Corporate Push to End the Stigma of Mental Illness. The Huffington Post. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sigurd-ackerman/a-corporate-push-to-end-the-stigma-of-mental-illness_b_6863908.html

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