I watched my Father work himself to death. His unrelenting stress while working 26 years as a manager for a manufacturing company in a small town in Arkansas led to his first heart attack when he was 35. He had three more heart attacks and two heart surgeries over the next 20 years until he was permanently disabled by the time he was 57. He died four years later never seeing his three young grandchildren grow up and to hold his great grandchildren.

Dad was mentally ill, too. He self-medicated major depressions with alcohol abuse and was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years before his death. He was one of five people who will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. In my Dad’s case, I wondered if mental illness caused the stress or did stress cause the mental illness? University of California, Berkeley, researchers have shown that chronic stress generates long-term changes in the brain that may explain why people suffering chronic stress are prone to mental problems such as anxiety and mood disorders.

Dad, like millions of other workers, was too afraid of stigma and possibly termination if his employer knew he suffered from chronic clinical depression and needed psychiatric treatment.  He was probably right. His employment was between the early 1960’s and late 1980’s.  It was a time when 5.4 million people with a mental illness were treated as second-class citizens with no assurance of civil rights. The mentally ill were hidden from view in gross, scary institutions. There has been little change in stigma-reduction since then; although, there has been de-institualization of the mentally ill, but limited community mental health care often leading to incarceration or homelessness.

Creating a mental health-friendly workplace starts with stress-reduction.  That calls for constructive manager-employee-engagement.

Do any of these stressors as identified by the Global Business and Economic Roundtable sound familiar in your workplace?


10. The treadmill syndrome. Too much to do at once, requiring the 24-hour workday.

9. Random interruptions.

8. Doubt. Employees aren’t sure what is happening, where things are headed.

7. Mistrust. Vicious office politics disrupt positive behavior.

6. Unclear company direction and policies.

5. Career and job ambiguity. Things happen without the employee knowing why.

4. Inconsistent performance management processes. Employees get raises but no review or get positive evaluation, but are laid off afterward.

3. Being unappreciated.

2. Lack of two-way communication up and down.

1. Too much or too little to do. The feeling of not contributing and having a lack of control.

Knowledge is the key to stress reduction in the workplace. Listen to your employees to find out how they feel. Implement programs where an employee feels safe to go talk about the causes of their stress and ways to reduce it.

Calculate how much stress costs your company with the “Stress Cost Calculator.” For example, if your company has 200 employees, the median annual health costs would be $2,646,400 and the annual medium costs of stress would be $977,504; if stress-reduction efforts are made, they could generate a potential savings of $48,875 – $293,251.

You can’t make your employees seek mental health care, but you can take steps to make mental illness no more of a health issue than diabetes. That is the essence of stigma-reduction.

A mental health-friendly workplace begins with communication. Yes, your company may have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), but few employees may even know about it.  An EAP can provide assessment and short-term counseling and make referrals for individuals at risk of mental disorders or facing trauma, such as divorce or the loss of a loved one. Promote this benefit on the company intranet, department meetings, posters, etc. In my Dad’s situation, my Mother died suddenly when they were both 34. He was left with me, age 14, and my brothers ages seven and three to care for until he remarried a year later.

Perhaps executives at American companies will consider what 28 CEOs in Australia have done. They created an organization called Superfriend, which funds and supports improved mental health and wellbeing for their employees. These executives say companies should:

* Act quickly to correct problems / issues that affect employees’ psychological health

* Act decisively when a concern about an employee’s psychological status is raised

* Show support for stress prevention through involvement and commitment

* Make psychological wellbeing of staff a priority for your organization

* Ensure that senior management clearly considers the psychological health of employees to be of great importance

As Bill Wilkerson, the co-founder of the  Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, put it, “Like never, business today depends upon the consistent, sustainable mental performance of employees, managers and executives for fundamental competitive reasons. If you want to succeed in today’s business environment, you must consider the mental health of your employees.”

Please remember my Dad’s story, too. He was a child of the Great Depression, served our country in the Korean War, and despite having only an eighth grade education, Dad worked hard for his company’s success and to provide for his family. He had name, too. Frank Thomas Roberts Jr and he missed the future he was supposed to have.