Mental health is a workplace hazard, it’s time to treat it like one

The pandemic officially ended last Thursday. What a relief. But lots of things linger in its wake. More people are feeling lonely, stressed, and depressed. And while working from home has its advantages, one downside for some employees is the intensification of these negative feelings.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s worth talking about the mental health of employees and its impact on the business.

Stress = workplace hazard?

Are mental-health hazards on par with other occupational hazards, like working outside in extreme heat? OSHA seems to think so. Maybe it has a point—employees who are stressed, depressed, or anxious don’t perform at the top of their game. If you don’t think this is a problem, think again.

According to OSHA:

  • Workplace stress has been reported to cause 120,000 deaths each year.
  • Between 2019 and 2022, approximately 65% of employees surveyed characterized work as a very significant or somewhat significant source of stress each year.
  • 83% of employees suffer from work-related stress, and 54% of employees report that workplace stress affects their home life.

OSHA would like employers to change this dynamic. However, it’s not as easy as it might sound. You need to balance concerns about productivity against intruding into employees’ private lives.

BP Handbook D

Stress test

so what can you do? If you know what stresses out employees, you can begin to fix it.

Here’s a short list:

  • Concerns about job security (e.g., potential layoffs, a reduction in assigned hours).
  • Adapting to a new or different workspace, schedule, or work rules.
  • Learning new communication tools and dealing with technical difficulties.
  • Blurring of work-life boundaries, which makes it hard to disconnect from the office.

We’ve been there.

How employers can improve employee mental health

OSHA has a tool kit you might find useful. There are also other resources you can explore.

If your benefits package covers mental health

You can encourage employees to take advantage of their mental health benefits. The Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Parity Act doesn’t mandate group health plans to cover mental health benefits. But if a group health plan does, the annual or lifetime dollar limits for mental health or substance use disorder benefits can’t be lower than the dollar limits for major medical coverage.

If you have at least 51 employees, you’re probably covered by this law. Parity also applies to small group plans, which, in response to the Affordable Care Act, began offering benefits.

Employees aren’t going to read the plan’s summary plan description to get an idea of their benefits. Instead, you can point them to the Summary of Benefits and Coverage, which group plans are required to distribute.

If your benefits package doesn’t cover mental health

If your group plan doesn’t offer mental-health coverage, maybe your employee assistance plan does. EAPs offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, and referrals to employees. EAPs offering limited benefits, such as referral services, aren’t ERISA-covered plans and the services are tax-free to employees.

Above all, you should acknowledge that employees don’t separate work from home. Stress at home migrates into the office and, of course, vice versa. Show empathy to employees who you see are struggling.