Students in Dr. Stephen Sweet’s Sociology of Work and Family course at Ithaca College were encouraged to write editorials on how work-family practices can make sense not only for working families, but also for employers. The blog posts in this “Millennial Voice” series were identified by their instructor and peers as offering strong cases for the business benefits of work-family practices.

Each post is informed by 50 articles and book chapters read as part of class assignments, as well as an additional 20 articles independently researched by the authors.  Links to relevant references offer additional exploration for interested readers.

Today’s post was written by Erin Wallace. Erin is a senior Sociology major and Education minor at Ithaca College.

When we think of some of the most stressful things in our lives, work is often one of them. In our society, we push people to get the best jobs with the best pay and the best benefits. This kind of pressure, along with other things that happen in our lives, can lead to mental health issues, including stress, anxiety, and depression. Although these problems cost employers significant resources, ranging from lost productivity to treatment expenses, all is not lost. Current research shows that mental health supports in the workplace—including indirect supports, such as supervisory support and increased workplace flexibility—can be a game changer.

Costs of mental illness

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that major mental illness costs the U.S. at least $193 billion each year, just in lost earnings by sufferers. One example is the lost productivity cost of depression. The Partnership for Workplace for Mental Health reports that companies lose $44 billion annually in productivity due to untreated depression. This is not just an issue in the United States. Other countries deal with the high cost of mental illness in the workplace as well. A 2015 study published in the Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal found that mental illness is the leading cause of disability in Canada, with costs estimated at $51 billion annually, in addition to significant social costs. One in six adults in the U.K. suffer from a co-occurring common mental disorder, with nearly 10% experiencing some form of anxiety or depression. Due to the nature of these types of illnesses, productivity in the workplace is one of the most visible examples of the consequences of lack of diagnosis and treatment.

Treatment vs. prevention

Not all health plans are required by law to provide mental health coverage, or overall mental health services, yet one in five people in the U.S. has a mental health disorder. However, losing money, productivity and workers is clearly bad for businesses, so it would be in the best interest of companies to invest in some type of mental health service. Although most insurance provides coverage for diagnosis and treatment, a more cost effective approach may be to focus on prevention. The goal would be to prevent these problems from happening in the workplace before they even begin, which is why preventative services can save a business from losing money, productivity, and workers.

One solution: work flexibility

One well documented method of supporting employee mental health is to increase work flexibility.

Most people don’t think of childbirth as a mental health issue. However, a 2016 study published in the Community, Work, and Family Journal shows that the amount of flexibility provided to new parent employers may have significant implications for the mental health of the parents. Results of the study revealed that, when available, schedule flexibility was related to fewer depressive symptoms and less anxiety for new mothers. Greater child care supports predicted fewer depressive symptoms for fathers. In terms of crossover effects, longer maternity leave predicted declines in father’s anxiety across the first year. Results are discussed with attention to how certain workplace policies may serve to alleviate new parents’ lack of time and resources and, in turn, predict better mental health during the sensitive period of new parenthood.  On average, lower income parents have few supportive workplace policies, such as schedule flexibility for child care supports, available to them.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Substance Use looked at options to address the well documented high burnout rate among substance abuse counselors. The focus of the study was around different training methods. A significant difference was noted between the more traditional lecture and classroom model of training versus a flexible training schedule utilizing a more customizable approach. The study concluded that even the perception of support and flexibility in the workplace may be helpful to prevent burnout and decrease existing burnout.

Another solution: supervisory support

A study in the Social Behavior and Personality Journal highlights the importance of supervisory support for workplace wellness. When employees were asked what it was that made them feel supported, one of the most common themes was perceived supervisory support. The employees explained how supervisory support, or even the perception of supervisory support, reduced stress and helped them to succeed in the workplace. Employees said that this actually has a more significant impact on their mental health than other benefits, including workplace flexibility. A lack of supervisory support has also been shown to cause significant issues. Studies show that higher odds ratios for depressive symptoms or probable major depression were associated with lack of supervisor feedback regarding performance, along with low social support from colleagues and supervisors in general.

Not long ago, the primary focus regarding lost productivity in the workplace was on physical health and related objectively visible reasons for absence, such as childbirth. Current and continuing research in the area of lost productivity issues makes clear the very high cost of mental health issues as well. Although the remedy for a mental health disability seems less obvious than, for example, the remedy for a broken leg, research has established that there are concrete responses available. Two such remedies are enhanced supervisory support and increased workplace flexibility. The research suggests that employers who invest the time and resources required to implement these remedies will find it well worth the effort.

photo credit: