Is employee mental health a worthwhile investment?

Investing in employee mental health benefits both the employer and the employee in the long run
Is employee mental health a worthwhile investment?

This article is the second in a series of pieces on workplace mental health by Dr Aditi Raghuram. To read the first part of this series, click here: Why we need to talk about workplace mental health.

Paying attention to employee mental health can prove highly rewarding for everyone involved. The WHO report states that for every USD 1 invested in treatment of common mental health issues, there was a return of USD 4 by way of improved health and productivity.

In the UK, a major research project by Deloitte, which aimed to calculate return on investment (ROI), found that a business making a mental health intervention can expect an average ROI of £4.20, with the most successful programs returning £9 of benefit for every £1 spent. They also found that improving the management of mental health in the workplace, including prevention and early identification of problems, could enable employers to save 30% or more of these costs.


Additionally, by encouraging employee wellbeing, organizations reap benefits through improved employee morale, loyalty, commitment, innovation, productivity, and profitability.


These are reports from Western countries, so, what is its relevance to organizations in India?


Mental health issues are fast becoming an increasing problem in India as well and the costs related to care, neglecting care, are rapidly rising . One in seven Indians were affected by mental disorders of varying severity; as per a 2014 WHO report India is the“most depressed country in the world”.In addition to this, suicide death rates in India are among the highest in the world. In the age group of 15–29 years it is the second leading cause of death in both sexes after transport accidents.

The proportional contribution of mental disorders to the total disease burden in India has almost doubled since 1990 (Indian Council of Medical Research, Lancet Psychiatry 2020; 7: 148–61).

The burden of mental health issues in India

Estimating the costs related to mental health issues in India is a complex exercise. Individuals experiencing mental health issues often don’t report it, due to lack of awareness or social stigma. Reports of costs are obtained from care providers and insurance companies, this leaves the majority of cases involving mental health unaccounted for.


In a study, researchers attempted to estimate the treatment costs of mental illnesses. By taking the prevalence rate of mental illness as 200 people for every 1000 of the total population, and calculating an individual cost of mental healthcare at Rs 500 per month—they estimated the approximate total cost required per month to be Rs 10,000 crores or 100 billion USD.These numbers only reflect the direct costs of mental illness, not the indirect costs in the form of absenteeism, loss of productivity.


Given this data, and the costs to be borne by individuals, organizations, and society at large, it becomes even more important to understand the role they play in fostering better mental health.


Some of the ways in which organizations contribute to poor mental health in workers are:

  • Inadequate health and safety policies;

  • Poor communication and management practices;

  • Limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work;

  • Low levels of work-related and mental health support for employees;

  • Poor team cohesion and support;

  • Temporary solutions like “offsite team building activities” for deeper problems, reflecting a lack of support, cohesion, and shared understanding of goals and expectations;

  • Inflexible working hours and other policies of inclusion; and

  • Lack of clarity about roles and objectives.


Aside from these factors, every organization, department, and team may have their unique factors that contribute to the wellbeing of its members.


So what can organizations do to improve their environments, and provide support that builds better mental health amongst their workforce?

  • Increase awareness by means of a Mental Health Champion who is preferably a qualified clinical, or industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologist. I/O psychologists are not only trained in organizational behavior and group dynamics, but also in occupational health, and evidence-based practice. Large and small organizations are recognizing the importance of the role played by a Chief Wellness Officer to help with their efforts for mental wellbeing.

  • Create policies that support the wellness initiative by getting the top management involved, identifying employee wellbeing as a core value, setting goals and tracking progress towards its achievement. This article provides examples of how to rework your mental health policies.

  • Train managers to understand and support employees, as well as themselves in their needs. Poor quality training can often send a message that the support solutions are a one-size-fits-all, but the reality is that every employee’s needs are different, and managers must be trained to recognize and respond to these needs.

  • Train employees to identify and articulate their needs that relate to work and wellness.

  • Promote positive and negative feedback from employees on an ongoing basis. We often tend to assume that there is a shared understanding of needs, but unless these are communicated and tracked, we are operating in our blind spots.

  • Provide work-life balance by allowing flexible working hours, switching off on Sundays and outside of working hours, maintaining strict policies about means of communication. In today’s constantly logged in world, employees are unable to switch off and get much needed rest because of constant demands from work that appear on a minute-by-minute basis on their smartphones and smartwatches.

  • Provide psychological safety (Edmondson, 2019) in the context of mental health, to allow all employees to disclose their mental health status, express their needs, share feedback and concerns without fear of punishment, stigma, or judgment.

This article gives a brief introduction to creating awareness and supporting mental wellbeing at work, but, in no way is it comprehensive. Organizations and HR practitioners must invest in qualified advisory services to help them understand the needs of their organizations, and implement effective wellness programs.

Dr Aditi Raghuram is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, Steinbeis IEC.

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