Good mental health, like good physical health, is important to human wellbeing. As the World Health Organization (WHO) puts it, ‘Mental health is an integral part of health; indeed, there is no health without mental health’.1 And the mental health of employees is a critical element in the success of any organisation.
Prevalence of mental health issues
Mental health problems are common in populations around the world. Study results indicate that a third to more than half of all adults will experience a diagnosable mental health problem over the course of their lives. Roughly 20 per cent (1 in 5people) experience a mental health problem in any given year. Fewer than half of people with diagnosable mental health problems receive treatment (many fewer in many regions and countries).2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
The most common of these diagnosable mental health problems are depression and anxiety disorders.
- Before the COVID-19 pandemic, depression was estimated to affect between 5 and 10 per cent of the population at any one time, with an even higher prevalence in areas experiencing trauma from war or poverty.3, 4, 5
- Before the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety disorders, which include panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and phobias, were estimated to affect between 4 and 19 per cent of the population at any one time.3, 4, 5
- Suicidal behaviours, including suicidal ideation, planning and attempts, affect roughly 4 to 6 per cent of the population in any given year (with some studies giving higher estimates).7, 9, 10
- Stress, substance abuse, trauma and grief are not considered mental health disorders so aren’t included in these numbers, but all are mental health issues that can negatively affect a person’s ability to function.
How the COVID-19 pandemic has affected mental health
Evidence suggests the disruptions, worries, and losses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the incidence of many mental health issues.
- A May 2021 meta-analysis of studies conducted during 2020 and 2021 estimates that the global prevalence of depression was 28 per cent during the pandemic and that 27 per cent of the global population had symptoms of anxiety disorders. Those figures are significantly higher than findings from population mental health studies before the pandemic.8
- Mental Health America, a United States (U.S.) advocacy organisation, reported that nearly twice as many people took its online anxiety screening in 2020 than in 2019, and that use of its depression screening tool jumped by 63 per cent.10
- A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found high rates of anxiety disorder (37 per cent) and depression (30 per cent) in the U.S. in data from weekly polls through the fall of 2020.11
These findings are in line with what Workplace Options (WPO) has observed through the delivery of employee assistance programme (EAP) services in 2020 and 2021. Requests for support related to depression and anxiety have increased dramatically when compared to 2019 and earlier years, as have requests for help with stress, grief and loss, trauma, and substance abuse.
Starr Guthrie, MSW, Specialty Team Clinical Case Manager at WPO, has provided some of that direct support to members. ‘People have been fearful’, she says. ‘At first, the calls and other requests were related to working from home, isolation, fear for the safety of loved ones and the pressures faced by health care workers and first responders. That has evolved into calls related to returning to the workplace, sending children back to school and putting loved ones at risk through exposure to new variants of the virus. We’ve helped people cope with loss, sometimes of multiple family members. And we’ve helped people through the other traumas that have occurred on top of the pandemic – natural disasters, acts of violence, the focus on racial trauma. All of that fear, grief, stress and trauma have compounded the strain on people’s mental health’.
How mental health impacts organisations
Whilst employees’ mental health problems are often less visible than their physical health problems, they can impact organisations in similar ways. Employees who are experiencing depression, anxiety disorders, grief or excess stress are typically not able to give their best effort at work. Left untreated, these mental health problems can negatively affect employees’
- engagement with work
- ability to focus
- communication with colleagues
- energy level and motivation
- physical capabilities
Mental health problems are also associated with physical health problems and can increase an employer’s health care costs. Researchers have identified a strong two-way association between depression and both heart disease and diabetes, for example.12, 13
Given the data on the prevalence of mental health problems, this means that an organisation with 1000 employees might have 200 or more employees at any given time (perhaps as many as 400 during the pandemic) who have a diagnosable mental health problem affecting their productivity. Fewer than half of these affected employees are likely to be receiving treatment.
What employers can do
To improve mental health amongst employees and increase productivity, employers can:
- Communicate to build awareness of available mental health supports, especially the EAP.
- Make mental health assessment tools readily available to all employees.
- Train managers to recognise the signs of mental health problems and direct employees to available supports.
- Offer training in stress management.
- Examine work practices that may contribute to employee stress and other mental health problems.
 World Health Organization (WHO). (2018, March 30). Mental health: Strengthening our response. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021, June 28). About mental health. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm
 National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). (2021, March). Mental health by the numbers. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.nami.org/mhstats
 World Health Organization (WHO). (2019). Mental health: Fact sheet. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/404851/MNH_FactSheet_ENG.pdf
 Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Mental health disorder statistics. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/mental-health-disorder-statistics
 National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Mental illness. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness
 Naveed, S., Waqas, A., Chaudhary, A., Kumar, S., Abbas, N., Amin, R., Jamil, N., & Saleem, S. (2020). Prevalence of common mental disorders in South Asia: A systematic review and meta-regression analysis. Frontiers in psychiatry, 11, 573150. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2020.573150
 Nochaiwong, S., Ruengorn, C., Thavorn, K. et al. (2021). Global prevalence of mental health issues among the general population during the Coronavirus Disease-2019 pandemic: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sci Rep 11, 10173. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-89700-8
 Agovino, T. (, 2019, August 3). Mental illness and the workplace. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from the Society of Human Resource Management website: https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/all-things-work/pages/mental-illness-and-the-workplace.aspx
 Mental Health America. (n.d.). The state of mental health in America. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america
 Vahratian, A., Blumberg, S., Terlizzi, E., Schiller, J. (2021, April 2). Symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder and use of mental health care among adults during the COVID-19 pandemic—United States, August 2020–February 2021. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 70(13);490–494. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7013e2e
 National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2017, April 16). Heart disease and depression: A two-way relationship. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/news/2017/heart-disease-and-depression-two-way-relationship
 Bădescu, S. V., Tătaru, C., Kobylinska, L., Georgescu, E. L., Zahiu, D. M., Zăgrean, A. M., & Zăgrean, L. (2016). The association between diabetes mellitus and depression. Journal of Medicine and Life, 9(2), 120–125. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4863499/
Morgan, H. (2021, September). Mental health is real (C. Meeker, [Ed.]). Raleigh, NC: Workplace Options.
Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit www.workplaceoptions.com.
Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.