With more employees returning to the office and physical workplaces as pandemic restrictions are eased and with an increasingly competitive labor market, it is especially important that employers be vigilant in responding to the mental health needs of their employees.

One in five U.S. adults aged 18 or older, or 52.9 million people, live with some form of mental illness, according to 2020 data from the National Institute of Mental Health. More than 14 million, or 5.6 percent of all U.S. adults, live with serious mental illness, according to the data. Less than half of adults with any mental illness actually sought treatment in 2020.

There is also a good deal of evidence that the last two years of isolation that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Many are anxious to return to the office or physical workplaces or be in social settings once again, while others are eager to be back around other people. Others carry anxiety over having to protect high-risk family members or over having to take care for someone with long-term complications from COVID-19.

This means monitoring workers’ mental health may be a major concern for employers moving forward as they try to optimize productivity and retain well-trained talent. Gone are the days of telling a worker to just “get over it” or “snap out of it and come back tomorrow ready to work” as was common among older generations.

Attitudes around mental health wellness are changing, with younger generations more open and attuned to such issues. Employers may want to respond to employees’ mental health issues and provide an environment where their employees can not only succeed but thrive. Further, employers that do take an active role in promoting employee mental health are going to have an advantage in acquiring and retaining talent.

The issue could have real legal consequences for employers as well. Mental health conditions accounted for 30 percent of Americans with Disabilities Act-related charges filed in the fiscal year 2021, according to data recently released by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In 2011, mental health conditions only accounted for 20 percent of all charges, according to the EEOC. Moreover, while charges per year for discrimination based on depression has remained relatively stable over the past decade, the number of claims based on anxiety disorder in 2021 was nearly double the number in 2011 and accounted for 11.6 percent of all disability discrimination charges filed last year, according to the EEOC.

Key Takeaways

Employers may want to be more observant of employee behavior and immediately reach out to those employees who act uncharacteristically or erratically as those may be signs of underlying mental health issues. Additionally, employers may want to provide safe and confidential procedures and assistance programs to seek treatment for potential mental health problems.

For more information on dealing with employee mental health in the workplace, please listen to our recent podcast recorded live at Ogletree Deakins’ Workplace Strategies seminar called “Workplace Strategies Watercooler: Exploring Mental Health in the Workplace.” Listen to the full podcast here or on your favorite podcast platforms.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, which is aimed at reducing the stigma around mental illness and encouraging those suffering from mental illness to seek treatment. Individuals who need immediate assistance can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, which may be accessed by the three-digit code 988 across the U.S. by July 16.


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