Approximately one in five employees in the United States say mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety have made challenges in their jobs more difficult to handle over the past month, according to Counseling@Northwestern, the online Master of Arts in counseling program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

While more companies are starting to recognize the pervasiveness of mental illness, workplaces that support mental health are not the standard. As more people are diagnosed with mental health conditions and seek treatment, employers must ensure they’re creating work environments that support the mental health and wellness of employees.

Why More Support Is Needed

According to a 2017 poll for the American Psychological Association, just 48 percent of employed adults have access to employer-provided resources to help meet mental health needs, and only 42 percent receive sufficient stress-management resources from their employers.

It’s no secret that mental health conditions can make work more difficult. Younger workers in particular seem to be struggling: According to Counseling@Northwestern, 29 percent of millennials report finding work more challenging because of a mental health issue, compared to only 17 percent of Gen. X-ers and 5 percent of baby boomers.

Dr. Eric Beeson, a licensed professional counselor and a core faculty member at Counseling@Northwestern, says greater awareness among younger workers may help explain the difference.

“I think that the younger folks today have a more holistic view of well-being and are more aware of the importance of work/life balance,” Beeson says in a blog post. “However, this work/life balance is often challenged with performance demands.”

How Employers Benefit From Offering Mental Health Support to Employees

Because mental illness among employees can have a tremendous impact on organizational success, providing the right support is economically beneficial. According to the National Business Group on Health, when workers’ needs are effectively addressed, companies stand to recover some of the 217 million days of work lost each year to mental health struggles — a cost of $17 billion — and as much as $105 billion in indirect costs.

As Beeson notes in the blog post, healthier employees also tend to be more productive: “I think performance goes up traditionally when people are healthier. It helps you accomplish your mission. [Offering mental health support to employees] is an investment in people’s lives as well as in the health of your business.”

It’s Not a Perk — It’s a Legal Obligation

For some companies, providing programs to address mental health conditions may seem like a nice-to-have. However, organizations would be wise to embrace such initiatives as part of their legal obligation to not discriminate against employees with mental health conditions. This legal obligation includes not using mental illness as a reason to fire someone, reject them for a job or promotion, or force them to take leave.

Of course, job performance and safety are important, and employers don’t have to keep people in jobs they can’t perform or employ people who pose a significant risk of substantial harm to themselves or others. But an employer cannot rely on myths or stereotypes about a mental health condition when deciding whether someone can perform a job. To reject someone based on a mental health condition, the employer must have objective evidence that the person can’t perform their job duties or that they would create safety risk even with a reasonable accommodation.

Colleen O’Day is a digital PR manager for 2U Inc. Find her on Twitter: @ColleenMODay.

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