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Monday, May 30, 2016

Investing in Mental Health- editorial in MaineBiz

Psychologically Healthy Workplace (URL) 
A psychologically healthy workplace fosters employee health and well-being while enhancing organizational performance and productivity.

Jennifer Van Allen is a Yarmouth ME, writer who published this important opinion in MaineBiz, but for some strange reason, the article is unavailable online, with a url; so I'm posting it with a credit to her byline.

MaineBiz writer Jenniver Van Allen writes about a Phycologically Healthy Workplace
Investing in Mental Health: Companies taking a look at employees' issues beyond the workplace by Jennifer Van Allen

Kennebec Technologies has invested millions of dollars in recent years to new precision manufacturing equipment and technology.

But, some of the company's most valuable investments, says President Charles "Wick" Johnson, have been those the company has made in the mental and emotional well being of its 65 employees. Kennebec Technologies has offered an Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, for a decade. It subsidizes continuing education and professional development, and it has launched a raft of other initiatives to let employees know that the work they do and their personal well being are valued. In 2014, the Augusta company was named a "Physiologically Healthy Workplace," by the Maine chapter of the American Psychological Association.

"Companies are hot happiness machines," says Johnson. "But, that doesn't mean we can't be sensitive to employees changing circumstances. You can't overstate how valuable it is to have a stable workforce that is committed and engaged.  And you have to look at it on a lot of different levels."

A healthy workforce is also critical to the company's ability to serve its customers, Johnson adds. "If we had one employee who became disabled, it really hurts us," he says. "It's absolutely in the company's best interest."

A growing awareness of a growing problem

Kennebec Technologies is one of a growing number of small and mid-sized companies that is addressing the mental and emotional needs of its employees as well as their physical health.

According to the Society of Human Resource Management, half o fbusinesses with 509 employees or less provide EAPs up from 48% in 2011.  Among companies that size, 82% provide some mental health coverage, up from 71% in 2011.

"I think that the awareness level is up to mental health needs," says Rick Dacri, a Kennebunk-based human resource consultant. "I think managers are much more sensitive than they have been in the past, and there's a greater amount of use of EAPs to be able to help them tackle these kinds of issues." 

More employees are tuning in to the prevalence of mental health and substance abuse issues in the work force, and the impact on performance, productivity, health insurance costs, and employee retention if those issues go unaddressed, Dacri adds.

Nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce experience a mental or substance abuse disorder according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). More days of work loss and impairment are caused by mental illness than by other chronic health conditions.

People with mental and emotional health issues are more likely to also suffer from any of those chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, asthma or stroke, all of which can be costly to treat, according to a 2012 report conducted by PwC, the global consultancy.

What's more, on-the-job stress can lead to mental and emotional health issues. Workers with high job demands and job strain are at increased risk of sick leave due to mental disorders, according to a study in the August 2015, issue of Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Employers find that they also need to address the stress faced by a growing proportion of the work force that is part of the "sandwich " generation, providing care for children and elderly relatives.

Nearly half of adults in the 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child, according to a 2013 study by Pew Research Center. Two thirds of caregivers are employed, according to the 2014 study conducted by the New York based Families Work Institute.

Caring for the Caregivers
Donna Betts experienced this loss of productivity firsthand when she was trying to get help for her grown son, who suffered from depression. At the time, she worked in development at a non-profit agency- fundraising meeting with donors and planning events.  

"I would walk into my office, close my door and start making phone calls to find resources to help my son," Betts recalls. "Even when I wasn't making phone calls, I was just worrying about him. My capacity to work and my output was greatly diminished. I had a very supportive boss. But, it wasn't fair to my employer."

Betts' son committed suicide in 2009, at the age of 23. She moved to a larger organization, but that job came with more responsibilities and stress, which felt unmanageable. Ultimately, she took a leave of absence and quit. In 2012, she launched Family Hope, a non-orofit agency which helps families, friends, and caregivers of the mentally ill to find the help they need.

The Scarborough-based nonprofit provides a variety of services, like the Family Support Navigator Program, which helps families find therapists who are taking new patients, who take a family's insurance, and finding out what the wait time is for an appointment.

"That piece is time consuming," says Betts.

Family Hope is working with KMA Human Resources Consulting to make this service available to small business owners, to help employees with loved ones who are mentally ill.

"When you take care of someone with a serious mental illness, there's a lot of stress and anxiety which can also lead to physiciaal health problems," says Betts, executive director of the Scarborough agency. "A lot of family members develop their own depression and it costs employers a lot in lost production and increased health care costs."

Establishing a psychologically healthy workplace
Local employees clearly want to do more.
In March, more than 50 leaders of businesses, non-profits and government agencies packed into a three hour seminar on how to build a psychologically healthy workplace, which was sponsored by the Lifeline Southern Maine Wellness Council, making it one of the most heavily attended workshops the council has sponsored.

Managers expressed their desire to address their workers' mental and emotional needs, their frustration about the affordability of EAPs and employees reluctance to take advantage of mental illness resources, for fear that it would impact their job security. 

Tom Downing, owner of the Lifeline Southern Maine Wellness Council, says that the stigma mental health carries still keeps some employers from providing adequate support for their workers, and keeps employees from taking advantage of any services that are provided.

"There's still such a hesitancy to talk about mental illness," says Downing.  "The stigma is within society and within companies. We're starting to make some inroads. But, it's a long-term process."

Dacri says that cost and uncertain return can make EAPs a hard sell for smaller employers, even though research has shown that a healthy workforce leads to gains to productivity, performance, and lower rates of turnover.

It's hard to demonstrate its impact on the bottom line, because it's usually a preventive cost, rather than a cost savings," he says. "In some cases, it's a leap of faith."

Typically, only about 5% of the workforce uses a company's EAP. But, even that can have a positive impact."You can't simply tell them (employees with mental health issues) to get better," he says.  "You've got to be able to provide some resource, and managers are not equipped to make diagnoses and referrals. If you're having an IT problem, you go to an outside resource for that. Why wouldn't you have a resource for mental and physical health?"

But, even if a small business owner doesn't want to invest in an EAP, there are plenty of steps that can be taken to create a psychologically healthy workplace. Offering workers flexibility with work shifts and creating programs that recognize performance "are just good sound management practices which don't cost employers anything," says Dacri. "It's all good for the bottom line."

A powerful message
Coffee By Design had an EAP for years for its 55 employees, but phased it out when it seemed that it wasn't being used.  

Yet, when an employee died in a car accident and employees began requesting the service, the EAP was restored, says Mary Allen Lindemann, co-founder of the company, which also was named by APA as a "Psychologically Healthy Workplace," in 2014.

The EAP includes everything from unlimited phone counseling and a limited number of in-person visits, to referrals to services to help find day care, car repair and legal assistance.

Even if employees don't use the service, Lindemann says that just having a plan, and telling workers that it's available sends a powerful message.  

It helps to create a non-judgmental atmosphere where workers feel comfortable asking for help, without fear of losing their jobs.

"I have to believe that there is some correlation to having the plan and the fact that people are more willing to share when they have problems, and their concern for co-workers," she says.

"I know that we have people who are still here because they have had access to help when they needed it, because they were going through hard times. I understand the costs, and that it's hard to do. But, I think the benefit is really significant."

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