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The impact of mental illness on your business — and vice versa

About 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness at some point in their life. That’s more than cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined.

If you are a business owner and/or CEO, you may be wondering if your employees’ mental health is impacting your company.

Financially, mental illness can have a huge impact on a company’s bottom line. According to the American Psychiatric Association, depression alone costs employers an estimated $44 billion each year in lost productivity.

Incredibly, this figure does not include the indirect cost of someone who is present at work but is not fully productive because they are battling their illness or thinking about a loved one who is suffering.

Last year, I chaired Touchdown for HOPE, the Lindner Center of HOPE’s annual fundraiser for mental health research and community programs. I challenged myself to meet with as many companies in the engineering and construction industry as possible — and ultimately met with about 50 CEOs, presidents or principals.  

What these leaders shared with me was eye-opening. Some were in tears as they shared heart-wrenching personal stories of how mental illness had touched a family member or friend.

Most knew of at least one employee who had a mental illness, but these leaders were unsure of what steps, if any, they should take. They didn’t know how to approach the topic, start the conversation, or create an environment that would be supportive and non-judgmental in the workplace. They felt helpless.

The experiences these business leaders shared had a pivotal impact on me. After a 22-year career in engineering and construction, I made the decision to leave that career and dedicate myself to promoting mental health education and awareness in the community.

Why did I decide to do that? In part, because I know how devastating mental illness can be, not only to the person who is suffering, but also to those family members and friends trying to support him or her. My entire life has been impacted by mental illness, as I lost my dad to this brain disease when I was only 11 years old.

Four years ago, I felt ready to get involved with mental health to make a difference and so I reached out to the Lindner Center of HOPE. My relationship with the center has completely changed my life, taking a negative and tragic experience and turning it into something positive and inspiring.

What I have learned during the past four years is mental illness has touched nearly everyone with whom I’ve spoken. However, not many people talk about it. Mental health unfortunately still carries a stigma that can make a conversation about it uncomfortable for both the employee and the employer.

Reducing the stigma starts with education, and the earlier we educate, the better off we’ll be. Half of all people who suffer from a mental illness will experience symptoms by age 14, 75 percednt by age 24. Like any other illness, the earlier we can recognize the symptoms and start treatment, the better the outcome can be.

It’s time we consider adding mental health to the required PK-12 curriculum for today’s youth. Students need to be prepared for life’s challenges and how to cope with stress, pressure, and the fast-paced changes and demands of today’s work environment. As employees, they will need to be able to work with and support a coworker who might be suffering from or giving care to someone with a mental illness.

Business leaders should support mental health education inclusion in the curriculum just as much as math, science and reading, because it will impact their business. Managers need to be able to understand how to work with a direct report who needs support and encourage them to get any necessary treatment. And it benefits everyone if employers are able to recognize signs of mental illness and encourage staff members to get the treatment they need, assuring them it will not impact their job status.

As a business leader, you can make a difference by helping to shift the paradigm and change the way we view and handle mental health. It starts with education, understanding, and being willing to start the conversation. It makes business sense — but more importantly, it makes human sense.

I challenge you to do just that.

Lindner Center of HOPE in Mason, Ohio is a comprehensive mental health center providing patient-centered, scientifically-advanced care for individuals suffering with mental illness.

Source: American City Business Journals.