Improving Mental Health in the Workplace

During our lifetimes, we’ll spend 90,000 hours at work. Since we spend significant amounts of time working, it’s no surprise that we also experience many things while we’re on the job. Some of those experiences are mental illnesses. About one in five U.S. residents had a mental illness in 2020, which is around 52.9 million people. Such illnesses can affect people’s health, relationships, and jobs, sometimes in profound ways.

Why some people don’t seek help

Although many people have mental illnesses, not everyone receives the help they need. Fewer than half of U.S. residents with mental illnesses – 46.2% – obtained mental health assistance in 2020. A few work-related reasons people don’t seek mental health assistance include:
  • Finances. People might not have the money or insurance coverage for mental health treatment or won’t be paid for taking any absences.
  • Job responsibilities. People might worry how they’re going to complete tasks if they take time from work to seek help or recover.
  • Stigma. People might be afraid that their supervisors will release them or reassign their work or that other people will treat them differently or discriminate against them.
Whether treated or untreated, mental illness can harm employees’ quality of life. The conditions can also hurt their workplaces.


One particular mental illness, depression, costs an average of $9,450 for every worker, every year. Treatment for depression is less than half (45 to 47%) of this total. Meanwhile, 48 to 50% of the costs of this condition are due to employees’ disabilities, absences, and low or lost productivity. Low or lost productivity is sometimes known as presenteeism. It occurs when employees are physically present but are working less productively or not at all. Absenteeism occurs when employees are absent from work. Depression creates presenteeism costs that are five to ten times higher than absenteeism costs, according to one study. Researchers noted that depression-related presenteeism costs amounted to $5,524 per person in the United States, which amounted to $84 billion total. In addition to these financial costs, depression also takes a physical and mental toll. People with the condition are sad and might struggle with sleep problems or suicidal thoughts. In the workplace, depression might make it difficult for people to:
  • Manage their time.
  • Complete physical responsibilities.
  • Make decisions.
  • Focus.
  • Communicate.
  • Interact with others.
Experiencing such difficulties can hurt individual employees as well as the workplace as a whole.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is another mental illness that affects workers and their employers. People with bipolar disorder experience periods of depressive symptoms such as sadness and hopelessness. They also experience periods of high energy, elation, and irritability known as mania (if the symptoms are severe) or hypomania (if they’re less intense). Sometimes, people might experience symptoms of depression and mania at the same time, especially if they have a type of bipolar disorder known as bipolar I disorder. Another type of the condition, bipolar II disorder, features manic episodes that are less severe. Cyclothymic disorder (also known as cyclothymia) is another type of bipolar disorder. It features symptoms that are similar to depression and mania but aren’t formally diagnosed as either condition. Any type of bipolar disorder can hurt productivity and cost money. One review of several studies found that bipolar disorder:
  • Affected 4.4% of U.S. residents at some point in their lives.
  • Led to $120 billion in lost productivity in the U.S. in 2009.
  • Created $31 billion in treatment costs in 2009 due to inpatient care, substance abuse treatment, medication, and other expenses.
As with other mental illnesses, bipolar disorder can also cause or worsen health issues. For example, bipolar disorder and depression may contribute to cardiovascular problems and other illnesses.


Anxiety disorders can also produce physical and mental symptoms that could harm a person’s quality of life and career. More than 40 million U.S. residents, or 19.1% of the population, have one or more of these conditions. People with anxiety disorders might worry, feel uneasy, or experience fear, dread, tension, or restlessness. Their fears might take physical forms and cause sweating, rapid heartbeats, and stomach problems. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) produces tension, worry, and anxiety, even if it appears the person doesn’t have any reason to worry. Social anxiety disorder (SAD, social phobia) occurs when people feel extremely self-conscious and anxious during social situations. Panic attacks (panic disorder) are marked by intense fear and physical symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dizziness, or digestive issues. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) features unwanted, repeated thoughts and the use of specific behaviors to try to eliminate them, but not practicing these behaviors can cause additional anxiety. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is anxiety that can occur after people experience or witness life-threatening events and can produce flashbacks, nightmares, and other recurring symptoms. Anxiety-related conditions are common in the workplace. According to a survey from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:
  • 56% of employees stated that anxiety has an impact on the way they work.
  • 55% of workers reported that they were anxious about deadlines.
  • Half of surveyed employees said that anxiety hurt their relationships with other workers.
Any of the disorders can interfere with a person’s professional life.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Affecting up to 4% of the population, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is another condition that can interfere with working, socializing, and living. Symptoms of the disorder can include:
  • Impulsive and hyperactive behavior
  • An inability to pay attention
  • Difficulties with motivation, memory, and self-awareness
  • Problems regulating emotions
  • Different ideas about time (individuals may be time blind, or unable to estimate the passage of time)
Such symptoms can affect a person’s professional performance. People with ADHD may find it difficult to understand instructions, start and manage projects, finish tasks on time, or behave in workplace-appropriate ways. Due to these challenges, people with the condition might earn less money every year compared to colleagues who don’t have ADHD. People with ADHD also tend to be absent from work more often, are 60% more likely to be fired, and have triple the chance of impulsively quitting their jobs.

Helping employees and their employers

As challenging as mental illnesses are, they’re treatable. They don’t need to derail a person’s career. If employees are reluctant to discuss their mental illnesses, they can still take steps to improve their work situations. For example, people with ADHD could mention to their supervisors that they’re more productive in quiet environments. Armed with this knowledge, the employees may make arrangements to work out of private offices, from home, or during different shifts. But if they disclose their conditions, they’ll find that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers many mental illnesses, especially if they affect a person’s ability to work. The legislation requests that workplaces make reasonable accommodations to help their employees perform. For people with mental illnesses, reasonable workplace accommodations could take the form of:
  • Flexible work shifts
  • More frequent breaks
  • Schedules that allow employees to attend medical appointments and therapy sessions
  • Leaves of absences, mental health days, and other types of sick days
  • Private areas or offices
  • Measures to reduce sound
  • Changes in workplace organization or lighting
  • Tools to improve organization and reduce distractions
  • Additional educational opportunities and status meetings
  • Assistance and flexibility regarding task assignments
Not treating mental illnesses can make them worse. It can contribute to other conditions, such as substance abuse and addiction, or ultimately lead to suicide. Neglecting such conditions also hurts finances. Mental health issues create almost $3,000 in additional health care expenses. They also produce substantial costs relating to presenteeism, absenteeism, and employee turnover. Investing in employees can reap various benefits. Every $1 invested in treating common mental illnesses earns $4 in productivity and health improvements, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Addressing mental health can improve employee health as well as workplace operations. Providing mental health assistance helps everyone.


  • – One-Third of Your Life Is Spent at Work
  • – Mental Illness
  • – Mental Health, Stigma, and the Workplace
  • – SAFER – Safe Actions for Employee Returns – Mental Health and the Workplace
  • – Global Patterns of Workplace Productivity for People with Depression: Absenteeism and Presenteeism Costs Across Eight Diverse Countries
  • – Depression: A Costly Condition for Businesses
  • – Bipolar Disorder
  • – The Prevalence and Burden of Bipolar Depression
  • – Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder Predispose Youth to Accelerated Atherosclerosis and Early Cardiovascular Disease
  • – Anxiety Disorders 
  • – How Anxiety Hurts Workplace Productivity
  • – Clinical Implications of the Perception of Time in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A Review
  • – Impact of ADHD at Work
  • dol.govAccommodations for Employees with Psychiatric Disabilities
  • – ADHD at Work: Time Wasters and Productivity Killers
  • – New Mental Health Cost Calculator Shows Why Investing in Mental Health Is Good for Business
  • – Mental Health in the Workplace

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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