Improving Mental Health for Workers, This Month and Every Month


May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and this year I find myself viewing this issue through an international lens. That’s because in March, I had the distinct honor of travelling to The Hague to represent the U.S. Department of Labor at a policy forum on mental health and work sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.


The event was a highlight of my career − and in some ways brought it full circle. While there, I recalled a formative experience from my early working years. While attending graduate school I worked part time as an administrative assistant for a large company. In my office there also was a high-level executive secretary who oozed competence and professionalism, and I appreciated her advice on many occasions.

But, over a period of time, her demeanor changed, and she was not her usual self. Then one day she just disappeared. I eventually found out why, when I was given the chore of writing her termination letter. She had experienced a “nervous breakdown,” I was told.

I wrote the letter, but it bothered me to do so. She was an upstanding employee with more than 10 years at the company. There was no effort to retain her; she was summarily dismissed.

That experience shaped my life going forward, propelling me to enter the employee assistance profession, which was just emerging at the time. Employee assistance professionals, by way of employee assistance programs, provide counseling and referrals to help employees address personal problems that might adversely impact their job performance.

Whether through an EAP or a less formal method, supporting the mental health needs of workers is good for employees, employers and society at large. That was the resounding message at the international forum − and an affirming one to those of us in the Office of Disability Employment Policy.

We in ODEP take an inclusive view to disability policy, one that considers the needs of all employees with disabilities, whether those disabilities are visible or not. For instance, through our technical assistance centers, we produce a variety of trainings and materials to educate employers about how they can − and why they should − help employees with mental health conditions stay at or return to work following an absence. We also help ensure youth with mental health conditions are equipped to successfully transition from school to work.

Failure to act on this front exacts an enormous toll. At the forum, the OECD released a report showing that people with mild to moderate mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, are twice as likely to be unemployed and significantly more likely to live in poverty and be dependent on benefits. Much of this has to do with the stigma that surrounds mental health conditions, despite the fact that nearly one of every five people ages 15-64 is experiencing them at any one time.

On the bright side, the report also indicates that services provided via work or school are highly effective, and have a more positive and lasting impact than those offered only after someone has dropped out of the workforce or educational system. Furthermore, work and school are social determinants of mental health; with proper supports, they themselves promote well-being and can play a significant role in one’s rehabilitation.

I am sorry that my friend from many years ago didn’t have access to such supports, but am hopeful that through our work at ODEP, and that of our counterparts in OECD member countries, more people like her will have the support they need going forward. My trip to The Hague reaffirmed the importance of our work − which is to ensure more people can thrive in theirs, this month and every month.

Elena Brown is a special assistant in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.


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Comments

The primary problem for employees seeking out help through EAP program for example is that, sooner or later, it will get filtered through to the workplace. Stressors such as those described in the article are commonplace and, even today, not acknowledged within the workplace but blame is squarely placed on the employee. Employers who do not have separate sick time from vacation time "squeeze" the employee to be at work when in reality a sick day or "mental health day" is necessary but comes at the price of a decent vacation.

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