New Surveys Reveal Challenges for Employers in Dealing with Employee Mental Health and Substance Abuse Crises

mental healthMental health is a growing employer concern, with approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiencing mental illnesses in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Approximately one in 25 adults (11.2 million) experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities, including work, NAMI reports. Yet only 41 percent of adults with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year, and among those with serious conditions, only 63 percent received care. Unum reports that mental illness is one of the top causes of worker disability and 62 percent of missed work days.

All of this clearly points to a rising percentage of workers in need of mental health resources, as well as a need for training in HR to accommodate these needs.

Similarly, the American Addiction Centers report a staggering substance abuse epidemic. Consumption and addiction levels among Americans of prescription drugs, opiods are hitting record highs. Meanwhile, rates of alcoholism are rising as well, and is now the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death in the United States, according to

A recent survey from The Hartford revealed that 67 percent of HR professionals said their organizations are impacted by the opioid crisis, or will be eventually, and 65 percent said the epidemic is having a financial impact on their companies.

A Dark Secret about Employer Readiness Comes to Light

There may be an underlying assumption in human resources that employees in crisis will alert HR, but this isn’t the case. In fact, employees may expect proactive help in identifying their needs. According to a a new report from Unum, a leading provider of employee benefits, just 25 percent of managers in the U.S. have received training on how to refer employees to mental health resources, and more than half of people are unsure how they would help a colleague who came to them with a mental health issue. Perhaps surprisingly, more than 76 percent of employees said they are confident their managers are properly trained in this area, while only 16 percent of HR professionals agreed.

The Hartford survey on opioid addiction revealed similar results, with most HR professionals feeling ill-equipped to help opioid-addicted colleagues. Just 24% of HR professionals and 18% of employees in the survey felt “very” or “extremely” confident that they could recognize the signs of opioid addiction, and only 19% of HR professionals and employees felt “very” or “extremely” aware of how to minimize the risk of addiction.

So why is the onus on managers and HR, and not the individual employees? One reason is that a majority of workers with mental health issues believe there is a stigma toward their conditions in their workplaces, and half believe the stigma is getting worse.

Employee Absence Management

According the The Standard’s Absence and Disability Readiness Index, there are some serious shortcomings in employers’ approaches to managing absences and in their confidence about their practices. More than half of organizations surveyed lack formal processes for stay-at-work and return-to-work programs, and 61 percent said ever-changing disability laws and guidelines make it difficult to support employees and comply with the law. Less than one third of employers have embraced the need for family and medical leave with an approach that is more generous than current laws, and fewer than half say their companies are protected against complaints and lawsuits. Meanwhile, 44 percent have had a related complaint or lawsuit – yet more than half of employers believe the risk is low. Fortunately, a solution is emerging in FMLA management, with 40 percent of companies with 1,000 or more employees outsourcing, and 27 percent of companies with 50 or more employees outsourcing, according to The Everest Group.

The most telling statistic of all from The Standard’s report is that just 25 percent of HR professionals report having successful absence and disability management programs.

The Solutions

Solutions will vary depending on the recognition of risk factors within an organization. Trusted government agencies have published suggestions, including

  • The Center for Disease Control suggests offering employee assistance programs, promoting them for heavy awareness, and educating managers to identify signs of depression.
  • The Department of Labor released a Mental Health Toolkit, an online resource that assists employers in understanding mental health issues and providing resources. The Toolkit provides links to ready-to-use resources that employers can use to develop their own policies and procedures for helping at-risk employees.

In every organization, awareness of mental health and substance abuse problems, along with commitment from leadership and HR to supportive work environments represents a clear first step in what could be a long road to national workplace recovery.