Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health issues that affect our ability to be productive at work, and, according to recent surveys, they appear to be on the rise in younger generations. This trend is likely to amplify the challenges managers face in addressing mental health issues in the workplace.

A 2018 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 54% of workers under the age of 23 reported feeling anxiety due to stress. These young workers, known as Generation Z, will soon be the most populous generation, comprising roughly 32% of the population. Millennials are not faring much better, with 40% reporting anxiety, surpassing the national average of 34%.

In Massachusetts, older millennials experience more behavioral health conditions than the national average, according to the April 2019 “Health of America” report from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. For the average millennial, the report found, their health begins to decline at age 27. Millennials are not as healthy as members of Generation X were at the same age. And about a third of millennials nationwide have conditions that significantly affect their health, reducing their quality of life and life expectancy.

These trends across the younger generations are important to note because mental health conditions are already the leading cause of disability in the United States. Forty-seven million U.S. adults (nearly one in five) will experience a mental illness in a given year, and one in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mental health advocacy in the workplace
One of the toughest challenges a manager can face in the workplace is to identify and support employees who suffer from mental health issues. Whether these issues are temporary or chronic, it can be difficult to separate typical workplace stress from more serious conditions. Employees may experience stigma and discrimination, and they may fear their jobs are at risk if they discuss their mental health.

In Massachusetts, nearly 54% of adults with mental illness have received treatment from the public health system or private providers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The remaining 46% received no mental health treatment. This is a sobering statistic when you consider that Massachusetts has some of the country’s top health care providers. Health care is not always accessible to residents, especially those seeking mental health treatment.

One of the most important steps an employer can take is promoting a work environment that acknowledges and supports employees experiencing a mental illness. Information on what mental health services are available to employees should be readily available and communicated on a regular basis. It is also important to stress confidentiality in accessing and using mental health services.

Will Brown, executive director of AllOne Health, MIIA’s Employee Assistance Program provider, points out that that our mental health is interwoven with our social environment and our on-demand culture, which can make it hard for employees to switch off work. He recommends that employers expand their access points for employees and include modalities for mental health support, such as 24/7 online chats, life coaching, video counseling and text messaging support, in addition to traditional in-person meetings and telephone consultations.

One valuable step employees can take when facing challenges to their mental well-being is to contact their Employee Assistance Program. EAPs connect employees to licensed professional counselors who provide confidential assistance across a broad range of issues that can have a direct or indirect impact on an employee’s mental health.

One recent example from AllOneHealth concerned an emergency responder who was on the scene of an accident that led to a fatality. In the aftermath, the employee was experiencing forgetfulness, and he reached out to his town’s EAP. After his consultation, he was able to appreciate that he was having a normal reaction to an abnormal event and felt reassured. In this case, he did not need further clinical support, but he knew his EAP counselor was there for him in the future.

Loved ones of those dealing with a mental health issue, especially an acute reaction to an event, often become anxious about the person’s well-being and may say things that are not the most supportive. The clinical care that the EAP provides helps people feel understood and empowers them to mobilize their own resources for personal and professional growth and development.

In addition to EAPs, there are many other mental health resources available. Health plans provide a wide range of mental health services. Telehealth resources often have a strong focus on mental health issues and can provide vital and confidential assistance, especially for those who are finding it difficult to leave their home or travel easily.

Mental health screening tools are also available to help employees understand their symptoms and find help. MIIA uses an online mental health screening tool from Mindwise that is anonymous and confidential; it provides immediate results, recommendations and key resources for employees.

It is also important for managers to keep up with state and federal guidelines, as anxiety disorders and major depression are considered emotional or mental illnesses that are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that employers may need to provide reasonable accommodations for employees that have these illnesses. Accommodations may include shorter workweeks or allowing employees to telecommute.

Providing programs that cover employees’ mental as well as physical health can help maintain and retain a healthy and productive workforce.

Mental health resources
Department of Mental Health: Providing access to mental health services and support.

Bureau of Substance Abuse Services: Statewide system of prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery support services.

Mass211: Free, confidential, multilingual helpline connecting with a range of health and human services, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

National Alliance on Mental Illness: Representing families and people affected by mental health disorders; state and local affiliates include NAMI–Massachusetts.

Resources to Recover: Helping families find resources and support for loved ones experiencing mental health problems, including best practices and providers in recovery-oriented mental health care.

American Psychiatric Association: Providing information on mental disorders, including symptoms, risk factors and treatment options; also providing answers to questions written by leading psychiatrists, stories from people living with mental illness, and links to additional resources.

PTSD Alliance: Providing information and resources for trauma-related psychological and emotional disorders.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Dedicated to the prevention, treatment and cure of anxiety, depression and related disorders.

Written by Wendy Gammons, MIIA Wellness Manager