Mental health issues can be costly if employers ignore the warning signs, experts say

Sumuer Watkins

Mental health disorders cost employers billions in lost productivity, but programs can help employees overcome their problems, a benefit for themselves and their bosses.

Depression, anxiety, chemical dependency or gambling problems may sound like personal issues that employers would be wise to avoid, but nationwide it cost employers 200 million work days and at least $44 billion in productivity lost to symptoms of mental health disorders, according to various sources including the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Institutes of Health.

That doesn’t make people suffering from mental illness a lost cause, said Sumuer Watkins, executive director of Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare.

It’s expensive to recruit, hire and re-train an employee, she said.

Encouraging an employee to get help can be more cost effective, not to mention better for the employee. The sooner it’s addressed, the better. If employers wait for incidents to pile up, it can seem like an attack when they do address them. Do it early and don’t allow it to become a disciplinary process, she advises.

Stacey Brown, president Lower Columbia Human Resources Management Association, agrees.

“It’s a matter of training your managers,” she said. “The people who are out there on the floor, they know the employees, they start seeing changes, and instead of ignoring it, which a lot of people do, hitting it head on. It’s uncomfortable for managers; they don’t want to get involved with personal lives, but when it starts to affect the job, it’s their job to do just that.”

It can be difficult to talk to employees about personal problems, Watkins said.

“It’s OK to talk about what you observe and how it’s affecting work,” she said.

Absenteeism costs companies in lost productivity, strain on other workers picking up the slack and other ways. Presenteeism can be just as bad.

Presenteeism, “meaning, yes I’m going to go to work every day,” Watkins said. “I don’t get out of bed thinking I’m going to do a horrible job … but when you get there you just don’t have that drive and you just don’t have that feeling of responsibility and accountability that you’ve had to yourself in the past.”

Several employers and individuals provide Employer Assistance Programs in Clatsop County, Watkins said.

Clatsop Behavioral Health provides outpatient services on a sliding fee scale. The agency is funded mostly by state and federal grants and gets money from the Columbia Pacific Coordinated Care Organization for Medicaid patients.

“Anybody can come to our door,” Watkins said. “We won’t turn anybody away.”

Gambling addiction treatment is free, she adds. It’s funded by the Oregon State Lottery.

In Pacific County, Willapa Behavioral Health offers a variety of service to clients through offices in Long Beach and Raymond.

Executive Director Geri Marcus said the agency offers outpatient as well as crisis support services.

Recovery from mental health disorders is a big movement now, Watkins said.

“People assume once you have a mental health diagnosis you’ve got that for life, and that’s just not true,” she said.

Some disorders will require treatment for life, she adds, but “that doesn’t mean that is the state of your life.”

While heading off problems before they become an HR issue is best, sometimes it’s unavoidable.

LCHRMA’s Brown said clear policies and good documentation are critical for employers.

“Without documentation you’re setting yourself up for all kinds of problems,” she said, “so if I were to stress anything to employers when it comes to dealing with difficult employees it’s do your due diligence when speaking and taking the right steps and documenting as you go.”

She also recommends having an HR attorney or specialist check your policies for legal issues.

If worse comes to worse, an employee should understand the policies and potential consequences.

“If they’re aware of what’s going to happen, then they have no right to be angry with you when it happens,” she said.

For more information about services available at Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, call 503-325-5722. CBH also has a 24-hour crisis line at 503-325-5724.

To reach Willapa Behavioral Health, call 360-942-2303 or 360-642-3787.

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