All too often we hear terms like “health and wellness” or “work-life balance” in HR, and the advantages of offering your employees those benefits. The whole idea is to make their lives less stressful and more productive overall. Both concepts are important; however, in most cases, they do very little to help those employees who are dealing with much more serious issues such as mental illness or chronic depression.

As human resources professionals, we understand the return on investment of offering health and wellness benefits such as gym memberships, nutritional guidance, and EAPs (employee assistance plans). We know that less-stressed employees are happier and more productive; we also know that employees who feel secure and cared for by their employers are more engaged in their work. However, are we doing enough for those who are living with much more serious issues?

Dori Meinert wrote an article published on the Society for Human Resources Management’s website (SHRM) called “Accommodating Mental Illness.” She cited a report by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which said, “…more than 41 million Americans (18% of the U.S. population) experience some type of mental illness.” The SHRM article went on the say that “Globally, depression and other mental health conditions are on the rise.”

We don’t need reports to know that mental health is a major issue for employers; all you really have to do is turn on the local news or read the major news media online. It seems that all too often we hear about incidents regarding employees with mental issues. Unfortunately, it’s often not until something major happens that we learn that the person was ill or suffering from a mental health issue. Sadly, by then it can be too late.

Are we addressing the seriousness of these issues, or do we try to sweep them under the rug? It’s a very touchy subject, and it’s not easy to talk about, but HR needs to drive the conversation forward. At any moment our employees may be dealing with a wide variety of issues that weigh heavily on their minds.

Common Mental Illnesses

  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Major Depression
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder

The cost of mental illness is broken down into two categories: direct costs and indirect costs. Direct costs are disability payments and patient care. Indirect costs are time taken off from work and lost productivity. The estimated cost for employers is around $100 billion dollars annually, according to the Partnership for Mental Health’s website.

Here’s why Human Resources should lead the mental illness discussion. HR is privileged with access to a lot of employee medical health information; however, we are bound by the strictest rules of confidentially and employment law. We understand and respect this information because we deal with it all the time. HR knows that we can’t treat any employee differently due to a history of mental health issues or we could end up in court, fighting discrimination or disparate treatment case. On the other hand, we also know that it’s our job to offer all forms of support, Federal and State benefits, reasonable accommodations, and sympathy when managing those who are suffering from any kind of illness. This is a human capital issue, and we are human capital managers.

In closing, here are some suggestions to help you lead the dialogue at your workplace.

  1. Remind your employees of the resources that are available. Let them know what options they may have through the EAP, in addition to any local resources that could be at their disposal. Offer support and sympathy.
  2. Pay attention. Your employees are your most valuable assets and your most expensive investment, so be sure to pay attention to them. If someone doesn’t seem the same, ask if everything is okay and if he or she wants to talk about anything at all. Make sure your managers and team leaders are sensitive to various issues and know how to communicate with employees and not judge them.

Create zero-tolerance harassment/bullying policies. Don’t allow bullying and alienation of employees based on any reason, including mental illness. Strongly discourage and punish employee who resort to intimidating, name-calling, teasing, and labeling people as “crazy,” “schizo,” or “cray-cray.” And encourage all of your employees to be more aware by adding, “If you see something, say something!”

Adina Miron


  • Avatar Mary S. says:

    There is one more question. What would you do if you have a staff reduction and have to choose between a person with an intellectual disability and a person who is healthy if they are performing at the same level?

  • Avatar Jesse M. says:

    Adrenaline kills our brains. Stress brings adrenaline to our blood, so the next step is to burn it out with the help of some physical activity. But we stay seated calmly in our chairs, letting this hormone destroy our body and brains. And then a breakdown comes. To prevent people from experiencing this, companies should just create some facilities for physical and stress relief.

  • Avatar Anne Procter says:

    The first time I saw the problem of employees with cognitive disabilities was in I am Sam with Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Penn. I understood how touchy the problem was when Sam was fired from being a waiter. On the one hand, you understand his boss, but on the other, there is a lot more at stake than just firing a person with a disability. Their families will be hurt, they may lose their homes, and their whole life may change dramatically.

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