“For employees, their jobs and their workplaces more generally are significant influences on their overall wellbeing and the wellbeing of their family members,” Dan Witters, primary author of the study and research director at the Gallup National Health and Wellbeing Index, told ABC News . “That for so many their current job is harming their mental health is a devastating reality that leaders are going to need to come to grips with and take seriously.”
Overall, per the study, almost 1 in 5 workers reported that their mental health was poor or fair, the two lowest ratings on the survey.
Notably, those workers reported approximately four times as many unplanned absences from work due to poor mental health than did workers who reported better mental health.
Absences from work result in lost productivity. Per the study, across the entire workforce in the US, missing work due to poor mental health is estimated to cost the US economy over $47 billion a year in lost productivity.
“There is no question that mental health is a serious issue facing our society and our working age population … workers are struggling with mental health challenges to a high degree right now,” Dr. Chris Cunningham, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Tennessee, told ABC News.
Thus, workplaces can have a significant impact on mental health and well-being for a lot of the US population.
“The workplace is the missing link in improving population mental health,” Dr. Leslie Hammer, co-director of the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center and professor of occupational health psychology at Oregon Health & Science University, told ABC News. “The next steps are for workplaces to take a hard look at the culture around mental health support.”
Mental health at work has become more of a priority.
In October, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a report, titled Framework for Mental Health & Well-Being in the Workplace, that emphasized the important role that workplaces can have in supporting the mental health and well-being of their workers.
However, according to the new Gallup study, over 50% of workers were not able to confirm the presence of easily accessible mental health services at their workplace, with about 1 in 4 reporting an absence of such services.
“Employers/work organizations are one of the most direct ways to provide mental health supporting resources and benefits,” said Cunningham. “The important point here is that it needs to happen and it can happen.”
The surgeon general’s framework outlines five “essentials” to help workplaces develop policies and practices to support their employees. These include creating psychologically and physically safe conditions for work, promoting positive relationships and cultures at work, providing opportunities for more flexible schedules, more autonomy over work, and opportunities for growth.
The framework also emphasizes the importance of making people feel like they matter and that their work matters to those around them. In fact, knowing that one matters can reduce stress, whereas feeling like one does not matter can increase depression risk, the report notes.
These guidelines recommend training for managers to help them gain an understanding of how work can impact mental health, and in being able to recognize and respond to employees who may be experiencing emotional distress. They also recommend training for workers to improve mental health awareness and knowledge, to help decrease stigma around mental health in the work environment.
The WHO guidelines also recommended the investment of resources and funds into improving mental health at work, as well as the integration of mental health into already existing occupational health systems.
Cunningham said he believes the workplace, where people spend so much of their time, is a critical place to address mental health.
“If we’re not going to try or succeed in addressing mental health concerns through our work organizations, when and where are we going to do that?,” Cunningham said. “I’m not convinced there is a better mechanism or opportunity that exists out there than to do this through our work networks.”
Anna Yegiants, MD, MPH is a resident physician in psychiatry, and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.