December 1st, 2012

Program will address mental health in the workplace

The cost of mental health disorders manifests in the workplace in a myriad of ways – including absenteeism, productivity and health care claims.

“The literature is pretty clear and the science is pretty deep that we know depression and mental illness directly impacts those kinds of indicators,” according to Thomas J. Downing, director of the Maine Medical Center’s (MMC) Lifeline Workplace Wellness Program.

Still, many employers aren’t sure how to address employee mental health, others don’t include mental health in their overall wellness model and stigma continues to keep many from accessing available services.

To help employers better handle mental illness in the workplace, MMC’s Lifeline Workplace Wellness Program and MaineHealth are developing a Mental Health Workplace Wellness model that will provide a framework of best practices and training information.

Downing says the pilot program will initially focus on the state’s smaller companies.

Larger companies often have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to offer training or on-site support.

“Many smaller companies may not have an EAP or HR component in place, or policies or training,” Downing says. “So we see them as somewhat of a vulnerable population and we think we can have a great impact on them.”

Downing says about 97 percent of Maine companies employ fewer than 25 people; making up about half of the aggregate workforce. Such employers may be lacking in time, energy, money and resources.

“That man or woman who owns a variety store and has 10 employees, the challenges of running that business are unbelievable,” Downing says. The owner of a small company may find himself or herself filling any number of roles.

Additionally, “If something happens and an employee becomes ill or disabled, they feel that loss immediately. So we really think that’s the place we want to test this model,” Downing says.

The group is seeking funding for a two-year pilot and ideally hopes to launch it sometime in 2013, with 10-20 companies.

To prepare for the initiative, the group used a Web-based survey tool to gather information from both employers and employees. Then, a graduate student from the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service completed an extensive literature search of worksite mental health models. “She was able to uncover this wealth of information around the world of models that have been implemented in employers that focus on companies creating mental health friendly worksites,” Downing says. “What she has done for us is kind of syntehesize and brought a lot of these best practices models back to us so we can figure out what makes sense (for the pilot program).”

A lot of positive work was uncovered in the United Kingdom and Canada, he says, including a program in the U.K. that trains “mental health first aid” helpers in the workplace. “It’s a 12-hour course that’s very much like first aid and CPR. It’s not for clinicians. It’s for the average lay person.”

Downing says the broader agenda is creating healthy worksites – cultures of health that focus not only on physical health but also mental health.

“Some of our short-term goals are to increase employee knowledge and awareness of mental health. Also, we’re very interested in the whole issue of stigma. So we want to do an anti-stigma campaign. Some of the interventions will be very direct,” Downing says, such as training for managers and supervisors.

Short courses in mindfulness and resiliency are possible.

Intermediate goals are to look at potentially decreasing loss and productivity and absenteeism. The model will also consider the impact that a family member dealing with mental illness can have on an employee.

By Pamela Berard

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