Mental Health in the Workplace

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By Tom Murphy

We are reminded almost daily of the consequences of a mentally ill person is being allowed to work in a profession in which they place others at risk, in addition to themselves. Some examples are police, military, aviation, and even school-bus drivers. This sometimes-fatal combination reminds us of the ongoing argument about the employee’s privacy vs. the employer’s right to know. How can companies assist those who need help without intruding on their employees’ private lives?

According to the World Health Organization, in 2014, approximately 27% of adults in Europe (83 million people) suffered from disorders such as depression, substance abuse, and anxiety. The percentages are similar in the United States. Unfortunately, both employers and employees have incentives to prevent discussions about mental illness from entering the workplace. Employees do not want the stigma attached to mental illness or the possibility of losing their job. Employers fear the potential liability claims and lawsuits that are prevalent in our society today.

In the United States, we have established laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that prevents employers from asking job applicants about their health, which includes both physical and mental health. Applicants’ and employees’ health can be evaluated further, but only once a job offer has been extended or once they become an employee. Certain forms of employment are held to a higher standard, including like the ones mentioned earlier. These industries can use certain regulations and professional licensing standards to require additional health information prior to the employment or offer.

More employers need to recognize the risks associated with untreated mental illnesses and many in the mental-health arena, as well as business associations, are trying to lessen the communication barriers and stigmas associated with these illnesses. We are starting to see these changes in industries such as construction, utilities, and aviation due to the costs associated with a catastrophic event. Employers are beginning to realize that reaching out to employees they suspect are in crisis is worth the risk of a future employer liability lawsuit if it can prevent tragedy.