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Learning Corner with Jeff Pfeffer: It's Time We Talk About Mental Health at Work

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford University

Mental health is finally getting more attention in the working world. In fact in January, the World Economic Forum held meetings in Davos that featured a dedicated mental health track. The goal? Raise awareness of mental health as a global challenge—outside and inside of the workplace.

According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 18% of adults in the U.S. (some 42 million people) have a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder. And a report from Mental Health America found that almost 20 million Americans have a substance abuse problem, while nearly 9 million people (3.8 percent of the population) reported having serious thoughts of suicide.

The workplace isn't immune to the challenges of mental health. And as the working world strives to master new, unfamiliar technologies, mental health issues could even be exacerbated by work. What's more, a systematic review of studies of work-related stress estimates costs to be as high as $187 billion, with 70% of the sum coming from lost productivity. I believe that learning and talking about mental health issues at work is a necessary first step to improving mental health in the workplace, and by extension, curbing the enormous costs they create.

How Employers Can Do More to Mitigate the Costs of Mental Illness

According to The Center for Workplace Mental Health, nearly 7% of full-time workers experienced major depression during the year, with the total economic burden estimated to be about $210 billion per year. Major depression increases absenteeism, presenteeism (reduced productivity) and has direct medical costs.

Employers bear a lot of these costs and, therefore, have a role to play in addressing mental health issues—both through the medical benefits they provide and by building cultures of physical and mental health in their workplaces through management practices that promote well-being.

In order to get to a place where managers and employees understand the implications of mental health at work, companies should stop treating it as something distinct (and less important) than other forms of illness. They should provide comprehensive mental health coverage as part of their medical benefits, all while working to reduce the stigma.

Understanding (and Treating) the Pervasion of Mental Illness at Work

In 2008, the U.S. passed a mental health parity law mandating equal medical coverage for mental and physical illness, but big differences in coverage and access remain. One study found that in 2015, behavioral care was between "four to six times more likely to be out-of-network than medical or surgical care," and insurers paid primary care providers 20% more for the same types of care than they paid addiction or mental health specialists.

Some of this difference is the result of the stigma associated with mental health problems. A Financial Times reporter recently told me that when doing interviews for a story about mental illness in the C-suite, a board member told her that if the CEO admitted to mental illness, the board would fire that individual. An article about depression in the technology industry noted that admitting to depression could harm company perception and would put obtaining funding at risk.

Another contributing factor in the difference in cost and access is the sense that mental illness is not a "real" illness like cancer or heart disease. But that is completely incorrect: As my Stanford colleague Leanne Williams has demonstrated, neuroimaging studies show real changes in the physiology of the brain diagnosed with depression.

Making access to care more costly and difficult for insured employees and stigmatizing mental health issues just drives people to try and hide issues and not get care—perpetuating the problems and their associated costs.

A Path Forward for Employers and Employees

Ultimately, the best way companies can eliminate the stigma around mental health at work is to just start talking about it. EY (formerly Ernst and Young), for example, launched a program called We Care with the goal of educating employees about mental health issues and encouraging them to seek help. The program is also centered around support for colleagues who may be struggling with illness or addiction.

More employers should take a similarly proactive approach to get mental health out of the shadows. And once the lines of communication are open, HR departments can (and should) consider offering benefits that provide more accessible mental health care.

Mental illness is enormously costly, both to society and employers, yet research advances make the effective treatment of disorders such as anxiety and depression much more possible. For reasons both economic and humane, employers should work to destigmatize mental disorders, increase insurance coverage of treatments and ensure that care uses the best, most recent available evidence.

Photo: Creative Commons

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El talento de los empleados LGTBQ+

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El talento de los empleados LGTBQ+

Vivimos en un mundo cada vez más globalizado y conectado, lo cual lleva a encontrarse a gente de todas partes del mundo en las empresas. Aunque esta diversidad puede aportar muchos beneficios, la verdad es que no es fácil conseguir que conecten personas muy distintas. Para ello es imprescindible que las empresas apuesten por programas y estrategias que promuevan la harmonía y la cooperación. Con motivo del día LGTBIQ+ el 28 de junio, queremos llamar la atención a este colectivo severamente castigado socialmente. Aunque es cierto que hoy en día se han hecho muchos avances en temas de legislación para reconocer sus derechos, y la sociedad se ha vuelto más tolerante con su presencia, todavía existe discriminación en varios ámbitos sociales, incluido el laboral. Según Harvard Business Review a día de hoy el 85% de las 500 empresas en el top de fortuna ha implementado políticas de protección sobre orientación sexual, un aumento del 34% respecto al 2000. Sin embargo, como la historia ha demostrado varias veces, las leyes y la práctica no siempre van juntas. Según un informe del sindicato UGT “Las personas LGTBI en la negociación colectiva. Análisis de la protección laboral de las personas LGTBI” solo tres de cada diez convenios colectivos de las empresas españolas han establecido cláusulas destinadas a la protección del colectivo LGTBI. En Cornerstone siempre hemos estado comprometidos con la meritocracia, y el rechazo a un trabajador por su orientación sexual no únicamente es poco ético, sí no también un desperdicio de talento. No tiene ningún sentido para una empresa discriminar a posibles trabajadores solamente por pertenecer a este colectivo, malgastar recursos valiosos por prejuicios no es una buena estrategia. Así pues, con el objetivo de ayudar a este colectivo y a las empresas, hemos elaborado una lista de todos los beneficios que los trabajadores pertenecientes a la comunidad LGTBI+ pueden aportar a una empresa. Aumenta el compromiso de los empleados. Pasamos muchas horas del día en nuestro lugar de trabajo y como resultado, si la empresa en la que trabajamos está comprometida con la sociedad, hará que nosotros de una forma u otra aumentemos también nuestro compromiso con ella. Mejora del entorno laboral. Fomentar la diversidad entre los empleados hará que estos sean más tolerantes entre ellos y se sientan más respetados y acogidos por su empresa. Esto dará como resultado un clima laboral mucho más acogedor que se traducirá en empleados más fidelizados con la empresa y una menor rotación. Favorece a la imagen corporativa de la empresa. Los empleados han cambiado a lo largo de los años, ya no buscan solo ganar más dinero en una empresa, sino que buscan empresas comprometidas, que contribuyan con su labor a la sociedad y que posean valores significativos para ellos. Por lo tanto, es fundamental que las empresas posean esta imagen de compromiso y diversidad, si la tienen muchas más personas desearán trabajar en esa empresa. Hacen las empresas más productivas. Según un informe global de McKinsey, las empresas situadas cuartil superior en cuanto a diversidad étnica y cultural entre sus ejecutivos en 2019 tenían un 36% más de probabilidades de tener beneficios superiores a la media que las empresas menos inclusivas. Está claro, a más diversidad de talento, mayor beneficio.

El líder ágil: Consejos para mantener a los empleados comprometidos, conectados y productivos

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El líder ágil: Consejos para mantener a los empleados comprometidos, conectados y productivos

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Why Corporate Wellness Programs Aren't for Number Crunchers

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Why Corporate Wellness Programs Aren't for Number Crunchers

The hype around wellness in the workplace has reached critical mass. Corporations that once rolled their eyes at Google's full-time yoga instructors are now doling out annual wellness stipends of their own — paying for more "Namaste" to retain employees and promote overall wellness. And there's no sign the investment will stop anytime soon. According to the RAND Corporation, companies spend a total of $6 billion annually on wellness programs. Google, for example, shells out nearly $13,000 a pop on its nap pods, while Shutterstock offers employees weekly massages that amount to $50 per hour per employee (plus $800 for each massage chair). This isn’t to say it’s always expensive to run these programs — some can be low to no cost. In 2015, RAND found that most organizations plan to invest the same as 2014 (if not more) into corporate wellness programs. But the question remains: Is this a money-wasting fad or a valuable engagement and retention tool? The Employee Engagement Argument With 70 percent of U.S. workers reporting that they feel disengaged in the office, some companies believe wellness programs will reverse the trend. It makes more sense (even monetarily) to try to re-engage disillusioned employees than hunt for new talent. Studies show that disengaged workers are 2.5 times more likely to leave their jobs. One way to keep them is through these programs. "Employees value wellness-related benefits and want to work for companies that support their health-related goals," says David Roddenberry, founder of health-incentive company HealthyWage. To Roddenberry's point, experts have found that the next generation of workers place value in meaningful workplace perks, sometimes choosing a company with a healthy ethos over one that will simply offer them a larger paycheck. A survey from TechnologyAdvice found that 56 percent of people would trade a salary increase for workplace perks, with gym memberships as the second-most requested perk. The Business Case From a business perspective, however, wellness programs can seem like a money-suck as there's no clear — or uniform — way to measure ROI. Some companies opt to measure retention rates after implementing new practices, while others focus on decreased healthcare claims. It's hard to know for certain if Carol in accounting quit smoking because of the new corporate cardio classes, for example, or because her daughter implored her to make the life change — or maybe both. The difficulty, says Roddenberry, arises when companies simply throw money at wellness, but don't implement an actual program (i.e., they don't set goals or have a great answer to the "why" of the investment). Copycat programs and lack of due diligence do not make for successful employee wellness programs. "Incentives are a great example of something that works well in certain contexts, but not others," Roddenberry notes. "Some employers think that you can offer a $200 reward and expect employees to lose weight or quit smoking. Unfortunately, the money alone is not enough. The $200, when administered as part of a well-structured weight loss or smoking cessation game, can drive significant positive lifestyle change." The Takeaway Probably the most extensive employee wellness study to-date is a seven year study of 67,000 PepsiCo employees. While the study found that the beverage behemoth's chronic disease management programs lowered health care costs (lowering hospital visits 29 percent), lifestyle programs proved less successful (for each dollar spent on lifestyle programs, Pepsi lost $.52 in health care costs). The takeaway? Don't invest in a wellness program if your goal is to save money—invest in it if you want to improve company culture and help employees get closer to the ever-elusive "work-life balance." "Unfortunately, too many companies are trying to implement wellness programs with little to no experience or game plan for success," Kinema Fitness president Joshua Love writes on Forbes. "As a result, more programs fail than succeed. The real problem? Corporate wellness cannot be treated as a band-aid, and you definitely won't be able to find it in a fitness app." Ultimately, an investment can't be about returns. It can, however, foster a community of people geared towards a common goal. Better engagement, higher attendance rate, healthier families and talent attraction are all commonly believed to be by-products of a thoughtful wellness program — the question for HR is whether or not you're willing to take that leap of faith. Photo: Shutterstock

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