Mental Health and Stress Affect Workplace Engagement

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Mental health disorders are prevalent across all sectors of the population. Nearly half of all people in the United States will experience some form of mental illness during their lifetime. This can have significant and diverse impacts on a person’s emotional, physical, and interpersonal functioning. Occupational and economic effects of mental illness can be similarly devastating and remarkably far-reaching, but these effects are often overlooked. Depression, for example, is the leading cause of disability for American workers under age 45, per the CDC. The total economic burden of depression is estimated at well above $200 billion annually, with approximately half of this cost stemming from lost productivity in the workplace and most of the rest attributable to direct medical expenses (Greenberg et al., 2015). Other mental health conditions and the psychological and physiological effects of stress further add to this cost burden. In fact, job stress is even more economically impactful than depression, costing the United States an estimated $300 billion annually (The American Institute of Stress, 2021).Even people who never formally meet diagnostic criteria for a mental health disorder are not immune from experiencing significant cascading effects of stress on diverse areas of functioning, including in the occupational context. Although personal stressors and events outside the workplace can certainly impact employees on the job, it is notable that most people attribute significant stress directly to their jobs, underscoring the relationship between workplace wellness and psychological well-being. A 2008 poll revealed that more than two-thirds of respondents cited work as a significant source of stress, and sixty percent of respondents linked stress in the workplace to reduced occupational productivity (American Psychological Association, 2008).

There are many ways in which depression, other mental health conditions, and workplace stress contribute to negative occupational outcomes. Common symptoms such as fatigue, apathy, low motivation, impaired concentration, insomnia, anxiety, and irritability can directly attenuate a person’s ability to show up to work, mount adequate effort to effectively perform their job responsibilities, and interact appropriately with colleagues. For example, recent data from the CDC suggest that cognitive performance in the workplace deteriorates in approximately 35% of cases of depression, and physical job performance deteriorates in approximately 20% of cases. Indirectly, mental illness and high levels of stress also exacerbate other health conditions (e.g., hypertension, diabetes, chronic pain) that may be relevant to a person’s ability to work. Ultimately, these symptoms and problems drive a host of costly workplace problems including absenteeism and “presenteeism,” which reflects reduced productivity stemming from diminished capacity to perform one’s job effectively. This phenomenon is particularly burdensome, accounting for more than three-quarters of the workplace depression costs calculated by Greenberg et al. (2015). In addition to contributing to absenteeism and presenteeism, mental health and stress cause further financial strain and other burdens to corporations by driving high rates of turnover, disability, and costly bills associated with medical care, insurance, and legal fees.

Although these data paint a sobering picture of the toll of mental illness and stress on the corporate world and the economy, there is mounting evidence that a positive workplace culture and targeted initiatives focused on employee wellness can effectively counteract many of these troubling patterns. A meta-analysis by Chapman (2005) revealed an average return-on-investment of $5.81 for each dollar invested by corporations on health promotion initiatives. They found more than 26 percent reductions, on average, in absenteeism, healthcare costs (including for mental health and medical problems), and disability claims. Employees, too, recognize the impact of mental health symptoms on job performance. Nearly 90 percent of employees with a history of depression report better work performance and reduced absenteeism after pursuing mental health treatment (Goetzel, et al., 2018).

Corporations increasingly recognize the value of investing in employees and monitoring workplace stress levels. In 2010, 74 percent of U.S. corporations offered some type of wellness benefit (Wojcik, 2011). By 2020, more than 50 percent of large U.S. employers were also proactively assessing employee stress levels to enhance awareness and responsivity to workplace stress (Miller, 2020). Promoting a culture of psychological wellbeing and offering wellness benefits is not just good for a corporation’s bottom line; it is also attractive to employees. Even as workplace wellness benefits are popular across diverse sectors of the economy, more than a quarter of workers in the U.S. still say they want more mental health support from their employers (Miller, 2020). Millennials and Gen Z workers report particularly high levels of stress and are more likely than older generations to seek out positions that align with their values and offer excellent work-life balance. Corporations that cater to this by actively promoting mental health and wellness are more likely than their competitors to attract strong candidates in the years to come. By living out this mission, they are also likely to evince better employee retention, enhanced productivity, and a happier workforce.

Works Cited

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Mental Health and Stress in the Workplace. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/workplacehealthpromotion/tools-resources/pdfs/WHRC-Mental-Health-and-Stress-in-the-Workplac-Issue-Brief-H.pdf. Miller, S. (2020, February 28). Employers Enhance Emotional and Mental Health Benefits for 2020.

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Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 60(4), 322–330. https://doi.org/10.1097/jom.0000000000001271 Chapman, L.S. (2005). Meta-Evaluation of Worksite Health Promotion Economic Return Studies: 2005 Update.

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The American Institute of Stress. (2021, February 9). Workplace Stress. The American Institute of Stress. https://www.stress.org/workplace-stress.