6 Pillars of Leave Management: Mental Illness Risk


Assessing Exposure to Mental Illness Risk

Assessing Exposure to Mental Illness RiskBy Geoffrey Simpson

Director of Sales & Marketing

Mental illness, a common workplace concern, is the leading cause of disability in the United States.1 Employees dealing with mental illness may find themselves unable to perform and often take leaves of absence to cope. One in five U.S. employees suffers from mental illness, leading to a loss of 217 million work days1 and up to $500 billion in productivity annually.2

Mental illness can be difficult for employers to identify. Stigma surrounding mental illness may prevent employees from self-identifying, due to fear of losing their job, being isolated by coworkers, or other perceived repercussions.1 Although laws prevent employers from gathering sensitive health information from employees, data from your leave management efforts can help you appropriately target interventions.

Begin by educating yourself on the various factors that drive workplace mental health problems. Stress is a risk factor in any workplace; physical and mental illnesses can develop from extended or excessive stressors.3 Stress can lead to excessive absences. In the 2017 Mental Health America’s Workplace Health Survey, 33% of respondents attributed workplace absences to stress. Key contributors to employee stress include workload, expectations, management, and team relationships.

Another key factor is difficult or frequent interactions with the public; an analysis of a medical claims database showed higher rates of depression among high-contact workers.4 Employers can investigate to identify stress, depression, and other risk factors within their organization so they can intervene before these manifest as mental health problems.

Next, establish goals for your investigation. For starters:

  1. Identify specific employees who could benefit from targeted interventions, such as a referral to an employee assistance program or health and wellness program.
  2. Identify high-risk jobs and business units needing focused interventions, or look for broader management issues that could be driving problems such as stress.
  3. Ensure consistent and continuous measurement of your absence data during interventions. Look for improvements and continue to adapt your strategy.

You’ll next want to take a look at your data on absences. While you’re limited in the specific mental health information you can collect about employees — when certifying a family and medical leave, the employer may only ask the minimum information required to determine that the leave is medically necessary — you can look for patterns of absence, which may allow you to associate certain trends with mental health and then focus interventions. For example:

  • Absence days by week or month: Certain times of years such as holidays lead to more stress.
  • Absence days by location and job type: Do specific locations or jobs have more absences? Is this due to the nature of the work or other factors, including undue stress or management issues?
  • Intermittent leave cases for employees’ own serious health conditions (check continuous, too): Which areas of the business units have higher usage volumes?
  • Intermittent usage by employee (check continuous, too): Which employees are potentially at risk?

Readily available reports such as these can help connect absence rates and mental health risks. Information is crucial to building an effective mental health strategy that can help your employees stay healthy and reach their full potential.


  1. Center for Workplace Mental Health. Working Well: Leading a Mentally Healthy Business. June 2016. Retrieved from http://www.workplacementalhealth.org/getattachment/Making-The-Business-Case/Link-2-Title/working-well-toolkit.pdf
  2. Mental Health America. Mind the Workplace. 2017. Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/sites/default/files/Mind%20the%20Workplace%20-%20MHA%20Workplace%20Health%20Survey%202017%20FINAL.pdf
  3. Metlife. Stress: Reframing the Narrative. August 2016. Retrieved from https://blog.metlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Stress-Reframing-the-Narrative.pdf
  4. Wulsin L, T Alterman, PT Bushnell, et al. Prevalence Rates for Depression by Industry: A Claims Database Analysis. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 49(11):1805-1821. 2014.