Dealing With Mental Illness in the Workplace

Nearly 20 percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of mental illness. Learn how to end the stigma, address such issues properly, and implement mental health initiatives at your company.

When Stanford Alexander, chairman of Weingarten Realty Investors in Houston, found out that one of his family members was receiving treatment for mental illness, he began to understand the importance of expanding his employees’ access to mental health services. So, he enhanced his company’s health insurance coverage with no caps on mental health treatment, and the deductibles are now the same as general medical care.

The move made Weingarten a case study for the Center for Workplace Mental Health, an arm of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation that helps workers get the care they need and fights the stigma of mental illness. “With any initiative about wellness and mental health, it’s important that it comes from the top,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, the center’s director.

Nearly one in five adults in the U.S.—or 43.8 million—experiences mental illness in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Even more startling, 9.8 million adults thought about suicide in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 2.7 million made plans to kill themselves, and 1.4 million unsuccessfully attempted to do so. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the CDC. 

Mental illness affects people of all races, ages, genders, and socio-economic segments. “Taking care of your employees is the right thing to do,” says John Patrick, vice president of health and performance for Chicago-based insurance company HUB International Limited. However, many employers don’t want to get involved with mental health issues, he says. But the culture is shifting, and the stigma is slowly being lifted.

If you’re ready to implement mental health initiatives in your real estate business, here are a few ways to get started.

Be part of ending the stigma. Companies can use NIMH’s StigmaFree pledge, graphics, and social media messages. The Center for Workplace Mental Health offers employer resources, such as “Right Direction,” a turnkey program for addressing depression with posters, a customizable PowerPoint, and other materials. The center also offers videos on early warning signs, as well as resources on conditions such as PTSD and mental health parity laws. Brokers could also consider creating a fundraising campaign for local mental health organizations or suicide prevention groups.

Get your office leaders on board. Hold a training for managers and supervisors so they learn to recognize warning signs and appropriate responses, Gruttadaro says.

Begin an assistance program. Talk with your insurance company representative or local assistance program leaders to find out what is available. “Those resources are like an Easter egg hunt. Most employees don’t even know about them, and a lot of employers have no strategy [for implementing] what is available to them to help their employees,” Patrick says. Make sure your company communicates what’s available to the employees under your insurance plan.

Normalize it. Many people can still remember when cancer was considered the “C” word, but it’s now talked about openly. “We can get there with mental health conditions,” Gruttadaro says. Make information on mental health services accessible without employees (or independent contractors) needing to ask for it. Place brochures for local resources in your office, where people can confidentially grab one.

Design your program around age groups. Patrick says that a lot of younger people in your office might not find mental health issues as taboo as others. Understand the generations in your office, and design your programs around them so that everyone is comfortable.

Support workers who need time. If one of your agents goes out on leave because they are facing a mental health issue, leave the door open for their return. Ask them what they need help with during the transition, such as narrowing down their clientele to a manageable size. Think about it as you would someone who’s coming back from a surgery, Gruttadaro says.

Learn how to listen. If someone in your office is exhibiting signs of distress, ask them if they are OK. Make sure they know you want to help them succeed, Gruttadaro says. Be a good listener, put your judgments aside, and honor their confidentiality. The only time you should not keep information confidential is if he or she may be exhibiting signs of self-harm or harm to others and are not safe in the workplace, she says.

It’s important to understand the consequences of undiagnosed mental illness, Gruttadaro says. Like any health issue, if it goes untreated, it can be costly for businesses.


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