Why business leaders profit from mental-health literacy

BILL HOWATT
Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, May 29, 2015 3:00AM EDT

OPEN MINDS: BETTER MENTAL HEALTH CARE
Why business leaders profit from mental-health literacy

This is part of a series on improving mental health research, diagnosis and treatment. Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #OpenMinds

Business leaders are tasked with guiding their organizations to achieve a defined set of objectives. Many human resources leaders now use metrics such as “lost time” and “short-term disability claims” in order to get the attention of business leaders and to make the business case that mental-health issues can affect their organization’s performance.

Intellectually, most business leaders get the math, and they understand why mental health matters. What’s missing is a simple explanation for “why” and “how” mental health directly affects revenue. They need more than a set of metrics.

Business leaders who expand their mental-health literacy can gain insight into the root causes of mental-health issues, as well as where a given mental-health problem falls on the continuum from “stressed” to “mentally ill.” Without this understanding, business leaders can make the false assumption that there is nothing they can do except figure out how to pay for it – and draw the false conclusion that a mental-health issue equals mental illness.

Indeed, not all mental-health issues are created equal. Consider the following examples:

Jack was a happy employee until his wife left him for someone else. He became emotionally overwhelmed – he stopped sleeping and eating, withdrew from friends and family, felt ashamed and became depressed.

Jill grew up in a home with critical parents. From an early age, all she could recall was being told that she was never good enough. Her approach to life was to worry about failing. Jill was assigned to a new manager, whom she felt was overly judgmental. Now, when asked to do a task she used to find simple, she is anxious to the point of panic, fearful of failing. As a result of this pressure, she is constantly tense, short with peers and jumpy. She misses work more than she ever has.

Joe was diagnosed as being bipolar at the age of 24. He returned to work after a stay in hospital, where it was determined that treatment would allow him to perform his functions at work. He understood that a normal life required him to adhere to his medication because he has a mental illness.

Each of these employees could end up on psychotropic drugs, but if we look at their cases through a mental-health lens, they are completely different: Jack’s was a situational life event that negatively affected his mental health; Jill’s psychosocial experiences shaped her belief system; Joe’s mental illness is organic and facilitated a chemical imbalance.

Where an employee falls on the mental-health continuum defines his or her current state of mind. Every employee’s job is designed to support one or more functions, and each function’s success is dependent on specific key performance behaviours that will predict results. Employees can move along the mental-health continuum progressively or suddenly – their location and their ability to cope will affect their performance. Mental-health issues left unchecked can influence the frequency, intensity and duration of performance issues and the cost to the employer.

An employee who is living with low but chronic levels of job stress is carrying 10 extra metaphoric pounds of burden. But without an awareness of what is happening and why, this same person can move along the continuum from low to high risk. As the mental-health burden grows, so do the symptoms, health risk and complexity – it’s easier to deal with 10 pounds of extra weight than with 50 pounds. And the sooner it is dealt with, the less risk for serious health issues.

Like actual obesity, mental-health issues aren’t always genetic. Lifestyle, including exercise and diet, can predict risk. Physical education and health classes are designed to increase a student’s physical literacy, but there is no broad, consistent workplace approach to teaching employees how to cope with work-life challenges and conflict, as there is with physical education.

Research shows that people with worse coping skills are at greater risk for mental-health issues. Exercise and diet aren’t always factors, but in many cases, they can explain the “why.”

Business leaders with better mental-health literacy are in better position to see mental health as a condition that falls on a continuum. It’s normal for people to move back and forth on this continuum, as they do with physical fitness. Most of us can relate: We understand that when we lose focus on our daily health habits, we can put on extra pounds, but we know that the cure is to lose this weight.

Dealing with mental-health issues is more complex than just developing coping skills, but for many, these issues do not have to be permanent. They are treatable and coping skills can be taught.

Business leaders who increase their mental-health literacy are less likely to assume that there are no solutions. They are more likely to challenge human resources leaders to explain why and how mental health is affecting their organization. No longer will simple metrics be sufficient – they will want to see evidence of an integrated HR strategy that includes selection, onboarding, performance management, training and development, respectful workplace culture, rewards, engagement and mental-health strategies, all working together to support mental health that has a positive effect on employees’ key performance behaviours.

Mental health is each employee’s responsibility. But mental-health literacy helps business leaders cast a critical eye on what they can do and cannot do to support their employees. And it helps business leaders understand how and why coping skills directly affect business results. In the end, a business’s success is dependent on what employees think and then do – in that order.

Dr. Bill Howatt is president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S.