Each month, 33 percent of Brown County workers report having one poor mental health day, and 12 percent report having more than 10, leading to $400 million in lost productivity each year in the county, according to a St. Norbert College study. And that’s only the monetary cost.
In looking at the most common causes of absenteeism at work, mental health and stress occupy two of the top three positions, says Martha Ahrendt, executive director of Connections for Mental Wellness, a community initiative and collaborative partnership formed to address mental health needs in Brown County.
CMW takes a data-driven approach to respond to mental health needs in the community and has begun enlisting the help of employers. Ahrendt says it makes sense to look at improving mental health and wellness in the workplace because people spend so much time on the job.
“Work can often be one of the highest reasons for people to have stress and anxiety in their lives,” Ahrendt says. “How can we change that?”
Addressing mental health in the workplace isn’t always easy. While most employers wouldn’t think twice about making accommodations for someone with a physical limitation, it’s trickier with a mental one because it’s most often invisible and can carry with it a social stigma, Ahrendt says.
Supporting mental wellness on the job benefits employees, in the form of increased job satisfaction, as well as employers, in the form of greater productivity and engagement. Ahrendt says she’s heartened to see the number of businesses interested in working on solutions, and not just for their own best interest.
“So many organizations in our community are concerned about the community as a whole,” she says.
Steve Baue, president and owner of De Pere-based ERC: Counselors and Consultants, a mental health and wellness benefit company, observes similar motivations in his company’s clients. Companies that provide mental health benefits make an investment in community health, he says.
One of Baue’s goals with ERC, which administers EAPs for about 300 companies, is to knock down some of the barriers to mental health. The difficulty isn’t recognizing that there’s a problem, Baue says, it’s getting people to use the service.
“My goal is, I would love for people to come to us like they go to the gym … because research has shown time and time again resiliency is a skill that can be built,” he says. “It can be improved upon, it’s something you can learn your entire life.”
Marital and family issues, depression and anxiety comprise the top issues ERC sees, Baue says. Clients also seek help for alcoholism, and drug addiction recently made its way onto ERC’s top 10 list.
The program allows for employees to receive up to eight sessions of counseling per issue, and the benefits extend to employees’ families. For problems such as alcohol and drug abuse or matters that can’t be resolved in that time frame, counselors can refer clients to other treatment options.
For people who use ERC’s services, confidentiality is important, and the company goes to great lengths to establish that. Employers don’t know when their employees have accessed services, and when clients see one of the company’s 18 counselors, ERC ensures that no two people from the same company are scheduled at the same time.
Ahrendt says it can be difficult for employers to walk the line of helping employees while honoring their privacy. EAPs can help direct employees to services, and early treatment and intervention can keep a challenge from becoming a chronic situation, she says.
Providing a mental health and wellness benefit helps employers and employees alike, Baue says. If people bring problems to work, it can manifest itself in unhealthy ways ranging from difficulties getting along with co-workers to turning to unhealthy ways to cope, he says.
“There’s a bottom line impact of that,” Baue says. “There’s a culture impact. There’s an engagement impact. And then there’s an actual dollar impact.”
Baue, whose company also conducts workshops and provides critical incident response, says EAPs provide tangible results in areas like absenteeism, short-term disability impact, safety, quality and engagement.
Kathy Koehler, human resource manager for Hobart-based EMT International, an ERC client, says employees may perceive barriers to seeking mental health care, including cost and social stigma. Providing an EAP alleviates those, she says.
“It benefits employees, because many times employees won’t seek out help for those types of issues,” Koehler says. “From the employer perspective, it helps us ensure that our employees, as much as possible when they’re here at work, can focus on work.”
Achieving that kind of outcome is a goal of CMW’s work. Ahrendt likens a poor mental health day to a cold. With help, whether in the form of counseling or even in social support from the workplace, perhaps that cold won’t turn into pneumonia.
“We don’t often talk about our whole selves at work,” she says. “Now I think it’s time to talk about mental health.”