The CEO’s Desk: A Clarion Call to Eliminate the Invisible Burden of Mental Health

Jai Hooker@Work

A Clarion Call to Eliminate the Invisible Burden of Mental Health

By Bryon E. Bass, CLMS, CEO, DMEC

We’ve made commendable strides in how employers perceive and invest in mental health. However, our current efforts, while notable, are still not enough. The stakes are incredibly high: Mental health issues cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars each year. And with the surgeon general making workplace well-being a priority and government agencies stepping up their game, we have every reason to accelerate our efforts. 

Consider this: Each year, one in five Americans grapples with a mental health condition, and the majority of these people are our colleagues and employees. Even more telling, a recent survey from the surgeon general’s office found that 84% of U.S. workers believe workplace conditions contributed to their mental health challenges. This isn’t just data; it’s a clarion call for change.  

Why are We Holding Back? 

Despite understanding the need to address this issue, many organizations hesitate to enhance mental health initiatives, and the reasons are multifaceted: cost concerns, perceived complexity with implementation, and lack of tailored information. Additionally, there’s significant worry about legal repercussions and cultural barriers that discourage open discussions about mental health. 

There has been a fear of overstepping personal boundaries; not knowing how to intervene effectively; and a mistaken, and seemingly pervasive, belief that mental health is not in the integrated disability and absence management (IDAM) wheelhouse.  

We have addressed those myths and misconceptions, and shifted from theory to practical guidance. In January, industry experts shared guidelines, tips, action plans, and examples of success during the 2024 DMEC Virtual Mental Health Conference. Attendees learned strategies for crafting communications that resonate with a diverse workforce, which underscored the importance of inclusivity. Experts also shared recommendations for incorporating provider access metrics into contracts, a move that aims to ensure better health outcomes for employees. Furthermore, compelling evidence was presented showing a 4-1 return on investment for companies that prioritize mental health initiatives. 

Knowledge is Power 

Recognizing that work is key to holistic health, the Department of Labor is dedicating more resources to ensure employees are informed about their rights for mental health coverage under the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. And the Office of Disability Employment Policy has released tip sheets and guidelines that emphasize the role of employers in fostering a mentally healthy workplace to help employers create a place where everyone feels supported.  

Yet sometimes legal structures and the supportive framework fail to achieve intended outcomes. For example, during the 2024 DMEC Compliance Conference, Jocelyn Samuels, vice chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, noted that “pregnant workers were falling through the cracks” of existing laws, which led to the enactment of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA). This parallel situation is evident for those with mental health challenges, who often find themselves unsupported due to gaps in awareness and policy enforcement. These gaps can have profound implications.  

Just as the PWFA sought to mend the oversights for pregnant workers, we must advocate for and implement policies that ensure mental and physical health are treated with equal seriousness. That has required a cultural and legislative shift to prevent mental health challenges from being an invisible burden that employees carry alone. But those efforts are not yet achieving their goals.  

Wondering Where to Begin?  

A good first step is to look at your company’s leave data for patterns that can assist you in crafting better support systems to help employees stay at work or return more quickly. Customize employee assistance programs to meet your employees’ needs, and negotiate insurance contracts to ensure access to providers of all types, who have experience with diverse employee populations.  

And start normalizing the conversation. We need to treat mental health like we do physical health — no stigma, just part of regular health chats. Imagine if leaders talked about mental health as openly as they do about hitting the gym or eating right. That could really change the game. Anyone who believes mental health is not part of holistic health is not paying attention to myriad studies, reports, and laws. And it will cost them. 

Since its inception, DMEC has championed mental health as foundational to employer success and essential to human-centric business models. We will persist in this advocacy because IDAM professionals can make a difference. The time for action is now. Our mental health cannot wait. 

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