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Jul 7, 2015

A lively conversation among business leaders about how to effectively – and legally – promote mental health in the workplace is now full swing.

This is a wonderful thing, but some of the discussion is headed in the wrong direction.

The Germanwings crash earlier this year caused C-level executives across the world to stop and think about employee mental health, many for the first time. With this tragedy as the backdrop, most of the discussions that immediately followed were focused on using mental health support programs to help avoid similar disasters in the future — and prevent the litigation that follows.

I heard lots of these exchanges. I was part of several of them with companies around the world. And my advice to anyone still thinking this way is this:

While liability and worst-case-scenario-prevention are reasons why companies can invest in Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and other types of mental health support, they are far from the best ones.

Offering mental health assistance to hedge against disaster and litigation is sort of like buying an iPhone because it makes great phone calls. Yes, it can do what you’re asking it to do. But what you’re buying can also do a whole lot more.

The real value of Employee Well-Being Programs

The main benefit of EAPs and employee mental health programs is fairly straightforward. It’s the same idea that has businesses across the world flocking toward wellness initiatives. When used appropriately, they can make a workforce happier, healthier, and more productive – and save a heck of a lot of money over time.

EAPs have long been criticized for their ability to report concrete outcomes. There’s an ongoing debate about the monetary ROI these programs deliver. But let’s simplify the discussion and focus exclusively on the value they bring in terms of productivity:

  • Statistics show about 1 in 4 adults suffers from a diagnosable mental illness in a given year. Most of these are relatively mild.
  • The majority of people that have a mental illness live and function fairly normally — and they continue to show up to work.
  • But a given individual suffering from mental illness is going to have trouble performing their job to their full potential.
  • The Harvard Medical School found that workers suffering from depression lose the equivalent of 27 working days per year — nine (9) because of sick days or time taken out of work, and another 18 due to lost productivity.

The exact dollar amount of what this productivity is worth is wildly variable and dependent on the individual, but the core idea is easy to see.

Every company has employees suffering from mental health issues. These issues affect performance and productivity. So if companies can reasonably help employees improve their mental health, they have an incredibly strong incentive to do it.

Maximizing an employee mental health investment

Protection against tragedy and subsequent litigation is a very small piece of what EAPs and mental health support programs can do.

The real reason why businesses need these programs is two-fold. They provide qualified help to employees that need it — and they can help employers gain back a percentage of the working days that are currently being lost to mental illness.

If you’re a business leader, these are the outcomes that will influence your balance sheet on a monthly basis.

In the wake of the Germanwings tragedy, I’m glad companies are considering what they can do to improve employee mental health. But, I’m worried that some are missing the biggest benefit of why they should do it.