Time to Talk: Employers putting more focus on mental health in the workplace

More businesses realize importance of providing mental health support to employees

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Caitlyn Grathwohl, a baker in a Castle Rock grocery store, has no reason to worry about being fired, yet the thought is always on her mind. The lonely hours on the night shift add to a feeling of isolation.

Jorie Matijevich’s daily 1 1/2-hour commute from Parker to her job as a hospital administrator in Denver began to take its toll. The battle with heavy traffic, day in and day out, left her depleted by the time she arrived back home to her family.

As a former corporate tax manager, Kristin Adams knows how a job can negatively affect an employee’s state of mind. So she applied her lessons learned toward making sure her staff at her Douglas County massage studios feel good about themselves and their work.

The stress of the job can affect employees’ state of mind in many different ways. But mental health, already a difficult conversation in any situation because of the stigma surrounding it, can be especially challenging to talk about in the workplace, employees and wellness experts say: Admitting to a mental health issue, some employees worry, could cast them and their work in a negative light, making employers question their productivity and work quality.

MORE: Douglas County campaign to end mental illness stigma

More and more employers, however, are beginning to see the benefit of supporting their employees’ mental health for a basic economic reason: Poor mental health can have a sizable impact on worker productivity and work quality, research shows.

And, those who study workplace health say, addressing the effects of poor mental health in the workplace is paramount to begin improving a person’s overall health, which has a key impact on job performance.

“We spend more time at work than we do eating, sleeping and communing with friends and family,” said Josh Scott, associate director for education at the Center for Health, Work and Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health, a consortium of three Colorado universities. A healthy mind “is the single greatest determinant of health. So if you’re not addressing mental health in the workplace, what else are you doing to address it?”

Effect on productivity

The effects of mental illness on workplace productivity are clear:

  • Depression, if untreated, generates more than $51 billion a year in absenteeism and lost productivity, reports Mental Health America, a national advocacy organization. It is, the organization added, “as costly as heart disease or AIDS to the U.S. economy.”
  • Workers with a mental health concern or diagnosis are more likely to be out of work longer after an injury and less likely to return to work, according to a report from the Center for Health, Work and Environment.
  • Some 200 million workdays nationwide are lost due to depression, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. Workers with depression reported the equivalent of 27 lost work days per year, according to the World Health Organization.

Scott mentioned the idea of presenteeism — the measure of lost productivity from a worker while at work — as another factor that can often be lost on an organization.

“People in general just don’t do as quality of work if they’re experiencing a mental health issue,” Scott said. “It’s a harder metric to analyze — that somebody’s mental health is affecting their production … But these presenteeism and these productivity measures are contributing to the bottom line of an organization, and improving mental health can affect those numbers.”

One in five adults live with a mental illness, according to Mental Health America. The most common illnesses are depression and anxiety.

Depression and anxiety are also two frequent mental health problems experienced by employees in the workplace, the World Health Organization reports. But what is commonly left out of the mental health category is stress, which Scott said can lead to bigger issues.

“Mental health has become a heavily stigmatized word and kind of taboo to talk about, but stress is totally acceptable and almost triumphed and awarded,” Scott said. “People are so open to that sort of language and that sort of human experience.”

Stress can often be the underlying cause of depression and anxiety, the Mayo Clinic reports. It can also lead to anger, lack of motivation, restlessness and social withdrawal. Stress can even go as far as causing heart problems or triggering addictive behaviors.

Lisa Bandanes, a professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said toxic stress can lead to increased depression, obesity and cancer.

“Any time you have chronic stress in particular, you’re looking at a heavy physiological impact on the body, which impacts mental health and especially depression and anxiety,” Bandanes said. “To change the nature of stress from toxic to tolerable is often about social support.”

That support can sometimes be provided by larger companies in the form of Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, which often include counseling sessions, peer resources and other mental health supports, or in smaller businesses through creative solutions and ideas ranging from onsite yoga to healthy snacks.

A 2016 study from the Chestnut Global Partners, an international and national employee benefits provider, found an increasing demand for employee mental health services due to stress.

Making the transition into tolerable stress is crucial to managing stress and maintaining good overall health, Bandanes said.

“The workplace,” she said, “is no different if you want to feel supported — if you want to feel like `I can rise to the challenges and that I’m appreciated for making the sacrifices I do to meet those challenges.’ ”

‘You kind of beat yourself up’

Jorie Matijevich knows the effects of stress firsthand. For her, it didn’t come from her job as an administrator at Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver. It was the commute to the hospital from her Parker home.

Almost every day, she spent 45 minutes in morning traffic, then again heading home. The average commute for a Douglas County resident is 23.9 minutes, according to DataUSA.com. For Matijevich, a 45-minute commute was a good day.

“In reality, it’s an hour-and-a-half where you’re doing nothing…and it’s a little sad,” she said. “You kind of beat yourself up for not being productive during that time.”

The drive to work didn’t affect her as much as the drive home did.

She found herself becoming disinterested in activities she used to love, like riding horses. Often, she felt drained. She bemoaned the wasted time on the drive, and tried calling her mom or siblings during that time to feel productive.

That commuter stress isn’t uncommon, Bandanes said.

“That experience of an additional stressor will bridge your workplace stress into the home,” Bandanes said. “People have looked at giving yourself space, giving yourself a reset between that workplace and getting home, so that you’re able to feel like you can manage the day and start over with whatever you’re going to be doing when you get home.”

For Matijevich, that time in traffic between the workplace and home prevented a reset.

In late August, Matijevich received a transfer to a position as vice president of human resources for Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, just 15 minutes from home.

Her mental state, she said, is much improved.

“In some ways, (the longer commute was) nice because I can decompress from work before I get home,” she said. “However, I could do that in the 15-minute commute I have now, as opposed to that hour-and-a-half where you’re just exhausted. I don’t know if that’s depression as much as it is just taxing on your body.”

Stigma weighs heavy

Mental health problems in the workplace vary from business to business and depend on the individual: One employee’s experience could be completely different from that of a coworker in the same job.

In many cases, getting help depends on the employee’s initiative to find a counselor or reach out to his or her human resources director, Scott said. Still, it can be difficult to admit to having a mental health problem or for a person to identify that what he or she is going through is the result of a mental health issue.

Symptoms of a mental illness can be difficult to recognize because they often mimic other physical disorders, a Mayo Clinic report said. Depressed people can have back pain or headaches. Anxiety can trigger insomnia. Symptoms like irritability or low motivation are sometimes written off as growing pains or a phase, which can allow symptoms to become more severe.

Mental health conditions are diagnosed based on the status of a person’s day-to-day life. But, the report said, it can be difficult to recognize those patterns in the workplace.

The principal obstacle to dealing with mental illness at work, however, is stigma, wellness experts say.

“There can be mixed messaging,” Scott said. “If you don’t have a leader championing the employee experience and culture around mental health, it’s really hard to see that cultural change with mental health in the workplace.”

For instance, if an employee discloses a potential mental health concern at the workplace, and then he or she experiences any sort of stigma or finds lack of support from leadership or human resources, then the cultural stigma around mental health in the workplace is amplified, Scott said. Suddenly, that worker is seen in a different light and his or her productivity may come into question.

Having the conversation between coworkers and leadership is crucial, Scott said.

“If you don’t,” Scott said, “it could end up as more detrimental than not making this sort of change.”

‘It’s really frustrating’

For Castle Rock resident Caitlyn Grathwohl, the struggle with mental health is more than just dealing with situations at work. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2014, Grathwohl also is gender non-binary, which means a person does not identify as male or female and prefers to be referred to as they or them.

Grathwohl has worked the 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. shift at the King Soopers bakery in Castle Rock for about three months, though they have worked for the Kroger grocer on and off for about three years. To mentally prepare for the shift, Grathwohl arrives early. They listen to music for 30 minutes and perform various breathing exercises learned from therapy.

The rituals help quiet Grathwohl’s mind, which helps manage the manic-depressive swings that can be experienced with bipolar disorder.

Even though Grathwohl takes medication to manage the disorder, symptoms can sometimes still occur, Grathwohl said. The workspace might suddenly seem small, as if the bread racks are closing in. A feeling of paranoia can arise.

“A lot of it could be about not doing a good job and getting fired,” Grathwohl said about the paranoia. “I get worried, sometimes, if I go in the day before, I’m going to get fired on the spot.” Grathwohl said they have never had any concrete reason to believe that would happen.

A virtually empty grocery store also can be lonely. The bakery is normally manned by seven workers. Grathwohl’s sleep schedule makes it difficult to have a social life. Grathwohl aspires to a promotion one day with a better schedule, but thinking about what that entails often worsens the paranoia.

Grathwohl hasn’t approached anyone at King Soopers about their mental health condition because they fear the stigma associated with it, said Grathwohl, who sets Thursdays aside to see a therapist.

King Soopers employees have access to a company Employee Assistance Program, which can provide Grathwohl with mental health resources and benefits. And Athar Bilgrami, the human resources director for King Soopers and City Market, emphasizes the company’s commitment to supporting employees’ emotional health and wellbeing.

But Grathwohl instead has chosen to be on their mother’s health insurance policy, which also includes coverage for mental health counseling, because they said the benefits are better for their situation.

“I wish people could just go into work and just talk about how their mental health is affecting them, but it’s too hard,” Grathwohl said. “I know I’m a good worker. So it’s harder for me to open up about it because I think people think I will start being not as good of a worker. And it’s really frustrating.”

Creating positive workspaces

Health Links, a nonprofit based at the Center for Health, Work and Environment, has emerged as a leading resource for businesses to improve workplaces to create the healthiest possible settings.

The goal is to collaborate with employers across the state to promote health and safety in the workplace.

David Shapiro, a business relations professional at HealthLinks, works with businesses to highlight areas of opportunity to improve mental health on a case-by-case basis. But he has found there’s no cut-and-dry answer to the overarching question on how to improve mental health, and each business has different needs to be addressed to promote healthy working.

“We’re striving for safe, healthy workplaces … There’s no cookie-cutter answer to what that looks like or means,” said Shapiro, who works mostly with larger companies. “We’re looking for those curated companies to share with other employers of `Hey, here’s an easier way other folks are doing it.’ ”

HealthLinks encourages a holistic approach to dealing with mental health in the workplace, which means taking care of the body can help take care of the mind.

He has found something as simple as switching out candy for healthy snacks in the office can make a big difference. Other businesses have gone as far as offering guided meditation and yoga sessions with a professional coach.

‘It’s really important to take a break’

The South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce saw the need to improve the state of employees’ mental health, and earlier this year launched a partnership with Tri-County Health Department, which serves Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties, on a Workplace Wellness Initiative, a program designed to bring health and wellness into the workplace of its member businesses.

One of those members is Elements Massage, a massage studio with three Douglas County locations, two in Castle Rock and one in Lone Tree.

Kristin Adams and her husband, Mark, have owned and operated the Elements Massage studios for about 10 years. They supervise about 35 employees, mostly part-time massage therapists.

Before she owned Elements, Adams worked as a corporate tax manager for 20 years. She remembers long hours during tax season and vacation time that was hard to come by.

“I know the importance of having a mental health day every once in a while,” Adams said, “or just time off away from work where you’re not worried about checking emails or deadlines. Obviously, there’s a time for that, but it’s really important to take a break for yourself — let your brain have a break.”

At a massage studio, stressors come in different ways, Adams said: Scheduling can sometimes be a nightmare. Traffic and weather can cause clients or therapists to be late. Massage therapists need to enter each session with a calm demeanor, but sometimes the stress from a client can transfer to the therapist, leaving the therapist more tense and stressed out than when he or she began. Like stress sponges, therapists can absorb a client’s negative energy.

“The therapist can definitely feel that when they’re giving a massage,” Adams said. “It is really important that before the massage the therapist is in a calm state of mind and, after the massage, making sure the therapist takes 15 minutes to decompress before their next client.”

And, Adams added, if an employee has a pre-exisiting mental health condition, stress from the job can often make things worse.

Adams says she doesn’t have all the answers. But she knows helping her employees maintain a positive mental health state is key.

Toward that goal, she tries to bring employees together as family and organizes “fun days” once every three months. Sometimes, that’s volunteering at a community garden, other times attending a Cirque du Soleil event as a company. Family and friends are invited, because, Adams said, balancing work and life are crucial to a productive work environment.

“When you get out of your routine, there’s creativity that happens. People can get out of their comfort zone,” Adams said. “After 20 years of working in corporate America, it can really wear on you. So it’s really important to take those breaks.”

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