One somewhat unfortunate reality of living in the United States is that health care is inexorably tied up with employment, for better or for worse.
On the plus side, employers generally provide health insurance at a subsidized rate and may have other programs to encourage better physical health in the workplace.
But there’s more to health than physical well-being, and companies often fall short on the mental health front.
Mental health in the workplace is neglected and rarely, if ever, addressed, says Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, the chair of the psychiatry department at Columbia NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. When companies do address it, he says, “it’s addressed in kind of a touchy-feely, motherhood-and-apple-pie kind of way.” Essentially, we don’t take mental health as seriously as we take our physical well being.
To some extent, corporations are beginning to realize that employees’ emotions affect their productivity. Many companies, including The Huffington Post, offer opportunities for their workers to participate in yoga and meditation. Others provide full fitness centers or wellness counseling.
But those are mostly environmental changes. As a society, we have a hard time getting serious about the clinical side of mental health because there is still a stigma attached to it.
“What doesn’t get addressed [by companies] is the more medical side of mental health,” according to Lieberman. There’s little support at work for employees who struggle with mental illness or are just more susceptible to it.
It’s hard to pin down the exact number of people living with a mental illness, but estimates range from 10 to 30 percent of U.S. adults. This is a large enough portion of the population to assume that most workplaces have some employees who need mental health support.
Yet “it’s the third rail of HR; nobody wants to go there,” says Lieberman.
There’s not much government support, either. Worker’s compensation claims, for example, allow employees to get monetary support when they’re injured on the job. But every state has specific policies, and not all states cover mental health issues — even very serious ones, like if someone witnesses a traumatic event at work and then develops post-traumatic stress disorder.
This becomes even more important for professionals who have intensely stressful jobs — like firefighters, policemen or doctors. But the support just isn’t there.
“Many of our first responders are dealing with addiction and post-traumatic stress or some other form of mental health issues, “ says Peggy Sweeney, who started her own organization, the Sweeney Alliance, to help counsel first responders and their families. “Unfortunately, many departments don’t offer any type of help to these people.”
New York City firefighter Mike Ayello told HuffPost that he loves his job and can’t imagine doing anything else. But he also described using a range of coping mechanisms to get through his work. “Every time you get called it’s for an emergency. At the end of the day, you just have to kind of shut yourself off a bit,” he said.
Ayello said counseling is available for his department, but it’s not very popular. He says he just tries not to “take anything home” with him.
The Huffington Post’s “Work Well” series is also part of our “What’s Working“ solutions-oriented journalism initiative.
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