The border separating general ennui from clinical mental-health problems is especially challenging to managers in 21st century workplaces, seeing as it requires them to ask personal questions on matters that they are largely unqualified to deal with.
In early 2017, a Financial Times columnist asked,
1. “Why are we unhappy [at work] when we have gyms and free foods?”
2. She also suggested that “people with university degrees tend to dislike their jobs more than people without them. Hence, as more people have degrees, unhappiness rises.”
3. Because most adults spend at least one quarter of their time working, their mental health is directly impacted by and consequential to work and their workplace.
The connections between mental health, physical health, and business productivity, innovation, and profitability have been (for centuries) and continue to be the focus of research. In the context of the workplace, and for the purpose of this book, we define poor mental health as a person’s significantly compromised mental well-being that affects their capacity to do their job to their fullest capabilities – which in turns affects their lives and connections outside of work.
Mental health-related issues in the workplace continue to make more and more headlines and spike around tragedies. In early 2016, mental health received renewed attention after a 27-year-old pilot deliberately crashed a passenger airplane, causing 150 deaths. Subsequent media coverage highlighted the fact that the pilot had been referred to a psychiatric hospital two weeks earlier, and his employer had not been made aware of his declining mental state. He also had been treated for severe depression while in school. In 2010, 51% of Americans with a mild mental illness had full-time employment in the previous year (compared with 62% of people without mental illness); corresponding figures were 47% of moderately mentally ill people and 38% of those with severe mental illness.
Cognitive impairment from mental illness is particularly damaging in a knowledge economy that relies more on our minds than our hands and puts us in constant contact with others, either physically or virtually. More cognitively demanding jobs make it more difficult for people distracted or disabled by mental health challenges. Knowledge workers, however, whose output can be harder to measure than, say, that of factory workers, can also more easily hide underperformance at work. The most common mental health disorders in the USA are substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, major depression, and bipolar disorder. In 2017, the most common mental disorder among white-collar workers was depression.
Though awareness of mental illness has grown over time, many experts contend that the overall prevalence of these disorders has remained steady for several decades. Instead, mental disorders are being studied, diagnosed, and treated at higher rates. For example, while prescriptions for antidepressant drugs have increased significantly in OECD countries, most respondents cite a reduction in stigma (an attitude that marginalizes someone because of a mental health problem and denies that person’s abilities and competence) and growing faith in the usefulness of these treatments, rather than an overall increase in depressive symptoms. Some may view this as a positive, suggesting that efforts to destigmatize mental illness worked, access to care improved, and the mental health of individuals improved. However, others argue that there has been an increase in the prevalence of mental illness and that the increase is in part due to heightened stressors in the workplace.
Furthermore, stress is associated with weakened immune systems. Stress therefore shows up not singularly in mental unwellness but also in physical illness. Despite growing mental health literacy and a trend toward lower stigma, mental health problems seem to be impacting employment more than ever. More and more people are asking for disability assistance because their mental health issues make it hard for them to work. By many accounts, work is more stressful and intrudes more on the daily lives of workers.