A recent report from Happify Health found that the mental...

A recent report from Happify Health found that the mental well-being of U.S. employees reached a five-year low in 2018, with younger workers the hardest hit. Credit: Getty Images/Slavica

Mental illness is sometimes referred to as an invisible illness, but its effect on the workplace is far from hidden.

The World Health Organization estimates depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost productivity.

 In the United States, a recent report from Happify Health found that the mental well-being of employees reached a five-year low in 2018, with younger workers the hardest hit.

“This is an urgent problem,” says Acacia Parks, chief scientist with Manhattan-based Happify, a digital provider of mental health and wellness tools. Especially, she adds, because  young workers “will have the greatest impact in the workplace for years to come.”

The prevalence of symptoms of depression among employees ages 18-24  was more than double the general population's, rising 39 percent over five years, according to Happify.

This can be attributed to several factors, says Parks.  For one, young adults today face  an overload of information and many more career options than in years past,  which can be paralyzing for some.

Also younger people are less conditioned to handle uncertainty than they used to be, she says. They’re  left to cope in fewer uncertain or uncomfortable situations  as parents or society  reduce obstacles or barriers.

Beyond the younger generation, workplace depression in general is growing, with symptoms of depression overall among U.S. employees rising more than 18 percent from 2014 to 2018, according to Happify.

But many people don’t talk about mental health issues on the job. The American Psychiatric Association found that roughly half of American workers say they’re concerned about doing that.

Even so, workplaces should be proactive in addressing  these issues because “mental health is the responsibility of everyone,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the

APA  Foundation's Center for Workplace Mental Health in Washington, D.C.

Besides depression, common  problems  include anxiety and substance abuse.  And as more employers hire military veterans they're inquiring about post-traumatic stress disorder, Gruttadaro says.

Signs of mental health issues aren’t always visible, she says, but they can include changes in behavior or performance, acting more withdrawn, isolated or more disruptive.

She advises employers to use  a notice-talk-act approach: Notice early warning signs, talk by asking if a co-worker is OK, and  be proactive with support by offering connection to resources like an employee assistance program (EAP), health care benefits, or perhaps community support organizations.

An EAP can be helpful in multiple ways:  providing crisis intervention, short-term behavioral health counseling and mental health and substance abuse intervention, says Julie Prisco, a director of EAP services at Hauppauge-based National EAP. 

 It offers preventive training on recognizing symptoms of depression in the workplace, Prisco says. Employees are also given a number they can call to speak confidentially with licensed, master-level clinicians, says Prisco.

“It helps managers support employees they’re concerned about by offering their employees a quality resource they can call, rather than delving into the employee’s personal problems and overstepping their boundary as manager,” she says.

 Consider that psychological disabilities, just like physical disabilities, are protected under applicable federal and state statutes like the Americans With Disabilities Act, says Keith Gutstein, co-managing partner of the Woodbury office of Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck LLP.

If the employee comes forward with a psychological condition or there’s evidence of some type of condition that might impact the employee’s work, an employer can ask certain questions, including if they’re able to perform their essential job functions, he says.

If an employee asks for a special accommodation, for example an adjusted work schedule, then an employer can ask for medical documentation to find out what accommodations are necessary through feedback from the doctor, says Gutstein. For more on accommodations, go to www.dol.gov.

Eliminating the Stigma

More than one-third of American workers are worried about job consequences if they seek mental health care.

Source: American Psychiatric Association