Understanding the Importance of Employee Mental Health

Michael Galvan
A mental health focus is important for employers. Work can sometimes worsen or in some cases even cause mental disorders in employees. These disorders can result in extended suffering, depressed mood, high stress, burnout, anxiety, demoralization, substance abuse, and sleep deficiencies.

Some mental conditions often mean an employee will miss time from work, or not be effective at their job. Employees with high-stress positions are often at an increased risk for worsening or sometimes developing mental health conditions.

An estimated 43.8 million adults in the United States aged 18 or older in 2013 had a mental illness.1 A study by the Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that approximately 5-8% of annual healthcare costs are associated with mental illness, and some of these costs may be attributable to how U.S. companies manage their workforce. These costs can include up to 120,000 deaths per year or more.

To understand and support employee mental health, companies need to understand what “mental health” means. Mental health is “a state of well-being in which the can cope with the normal stresses of life and work productively.

Here are four of the most common mental illnesses that stress can worsen:


There are several warning signs for depression. Lack of energy, loss of interest, anger, and insomnia are all indicators that somebody may be depressed. Depression is a mood disorder often caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological
factors.2 There is a connection between depression and a lack of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that nerve cells use to signal each other) in the brain.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder become excessively worried about everyday work and personal issues.3 This constant tension can create destructive cycles of fear and anxiety.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder causes people to swing between extremely positive and negative emotions. These high highs typically last for a few days, and the low lows can last for weeks at a time. These mood swings can become very harmful and dangerous. 

Eating Disorders

There are several types of eating disorders that can be life threatening. The most common types are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. These conditions can hurt employee productivity, and may result in extended hospital visits.

Employers can take steps to improve employee mental wellness.

1. Spread awareness about mental health risks and disorders.

Even though there are millions of people that suffer from mental illness, many people do not realize they have a condition. Send out information on common disorders, and consider scheduling confidential free screenings online or onsite with a mental health professional.

2. Foster a healthy work-place culture. 

Make sure that your work environment is a supportive and safe place that encourages healthy behavior and relationships. Some employers give their employees freedom to take time off, and create a healthy life away from work. These employers may incorporate team-building activities, access to substance abuse counseling, meditation classes, and mental health seminars in the workplace.

3. Consult experts for tips on improvement.

Partner with a mental health expert to identify areas where your company could potentially improve on dealing with employee mental health disorders.

4. Make treatment accessible and available.

Put systems in place to help handle and deal with employee mental illness, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These systems should be respectful and streamlined. Many mental health disorders can be improved with the right care and attention.

Employers can help workers in both the physical and mental aspects of wellness. Education, support, and access will help treat employees with mental disorders, and promote healthy productive lives.


  1. Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  2. Depression. National Institute of Mental Health.  
  3. Depression. National Institute of Mental Health.
  4. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.