Internal marketing efforts to improve and destigmatize mental illness in the workplace have a long way to go. Here’s where to start.
This spring, investigations revealed that the March 24 crash of Germanwings flight 9525 in the French Alps was not from any mechanical failure or external conditions, but rather the deliberate decision of the flight’s copilot, resulting in an international outcry surrounding the effects of untreated mental illness in the workplace.
According to the Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention (CDC), 80% of people with depression—the most common mental illness affecting Americans—report some level of impairment because of the disease, and 27% report serious difficulties with work and home life. Meanwhile, only 29% of people suffering from depression report seeing a mental health professional about their condition, and depression is estimated to result in 200 million lost workdays each year, costing employers $17 to $44 billion in productivity, according to the CDC. In order for employees to receive treatment and return to work, employers must better understand how to market mental health services within the workplace.
Marketing Health Services caught up with John A. Quelch, professor of business administration and health policy and management at Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard University, and co-author of the study “Mental Illness in the American Workplace,” to learn how internal marketing efforts can help improve—and destigmatize—the state of mental health within the workplace.
Q: The Germanwings crash has sparked a worldwide discussion about mental illness. How can both health care organizations and employers communicate—and help normalize—the discussion of depression and mental illness in the workplace?
A: Very few organizations take a proactive approach to this issue. Most large organizations will have an EAP, an employee assistance program. Under the umbrella of that program, typically a variety of counseling services are provided by an independently hired, third-party organization. There is a lot of concern on the part of employees that if they declare themselves as having a mental [health] problem, that will be taken as a sign of weakness and may result in not being promoted, or it may result in being slated to be laid off, etc. The fear factor around [going] public with any kind of mental health problem, and I include stress-related problems that might emanate from workplace activity or family issues, is quite high.
Q: Many corporate health care programs focus on physical health—weight loss, smoking cessation, exercise, etc. What are employers doing to prioritize mental health issues as highly as physical health?
A: There’s a very substantial number of licensed social workers, for instance, and family counselors who can be enlisted through third-party provider programs that employers can contract with, such as United Behavioral Health—it’s one of the biggest in the nation. They basically act as the intermediary between the licensed social workers, family counselors and psychiatrists who might handle cases of employees needing this kind of assistance. There was an important piece of legislation … around five years ago that essentially put mental health on parity with physical health. Prior to that piece of legislation, there had been a tremendous number of restrictions by employers on the amount of mental health services their employees could obtain.
Q: What kinds of internal marketing efforts can help reduce that ‘fear factor’ and help employees make use of workplace mental health programs?
A: Sometimes, companies will address the issue by using euphemisms, such as a “time management” seminar. A time management seminar is probably going to address stress-related factors associated with being under time pressure, so there may be some information—coping mechanisms, preventative approaches—that are communicated. But if I put on a seminar and I call it a mental health seminar, I wonder how many people would show up? From an internal point of view, the marketing has to be done in a way that almost buries the issue behind another concept.
Author Bio: Julie Davis is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. She can be reached at email@example.com.