Surgeon General says workplaces play major role in mental health

CHARLOTTE — No discussion of mental health is complete without a long, hard look at what’s happening in the workplace -- the U.S. Surgeon General says companies can play a “foundational role” in the wellness of workers.

More than 160 million people are part of the U.S. workforce, and on average, a full-time employee spends about half of their waking life at work -- 90,000 hours. How workers spend that time, and which services and benefits employers offer them, can have a huge impact on their mental health.

Erika Duncan is a native of Charlotte and a Business Support Executive for Global Human Resources at Bank of America.

When her husband, Doug, had a stroke in 2017, she stretched herself thin between work, her two children, and caring for her husband.

“I would become a mad woman to make sure everything was OK on the homefront,” Duncan told Channel 9′s Evan Donovan. “Making sure I stayed in contact with work as I needed to, and more importantly, the children. But also, I was Doug’s advocate. I was there every morning, before 6 am to meet the medical team, making sure we connected the dots all along the way.”

A coworker noticed she was struggling. He put in a small word to a manager who engaged the company’s employee outreach program -- something the 25-year veteran of BoA didn’t even know how to do herself.

“It’s called Life Event Services,” Duncan recalls. “Once they connect with you, you have a case manager. They check in and you set up time to keep checking in. So I would call with my list -- they helped me with nutrition, how to get Doug home safely, they had someone to follow him in physical therapy and occupational therapy and his rehab, then helped me understand about removal of rugs and carpets ... you’re now dealing with someone who’s going to have a mobility disability.”

“So in those conversations, they would check in with me,” Duncan recalls. “Well, one of the conversations stopped. We didn’t even start on my list that day. She said we’re not talking about anyone today but you. Not your children or your husband. Because if you keep this up, you’re gonna make yourself very sick.”

It would be an unfortunately accurate prediction.

The pandemic hit hard in 2020. Erika’s only sibling, her sister LeKeisha, died of a heart attack in 2021. Then last year, the biggest blow of all: her father, Walter, died.

“A year and a week after LeKeisha died,” Duncan said as she started to get emotional. “Here comes the sadness. That was my person.”

Dealing with so much in such a short time, Duncan did what so many of us do – she tried to distract herself with work. And it worked for a while, until her mental anguish turned into physical pain.

“And it started with chest pains at 2 am,” Duncan said. “And I did not lean in on what was going on -- I went to work. And I couldn’t get out of the car, I could not catch my breath, I could not stop crying. It wasn’t just internal anymore, it came out. And all I wanted to do was get inside the building and cut that laptop on and not feel. But I couldn’t get out of the car.”

Duncan drove herself to the ER. She was checked in for four days, then sent home for 10. Those 10 days then became three months off work.

“Because that’s when I had made myself sick,” said Duncan. “And that’s when I learned that there is no health without mental health. You have to heal when life events come at you. And they will come at all of us, which is why mental health awareness is so important.”

Not many employees can take three months paid off work and still come back to their job. But things are starting to change -- at least for some workers.

“We do hear employers raising more questions and concerns around their employees’ mental health,” said Cheryl Richards, CEO of Catapult, an HR and business support firm formerly called the Employers Association, which is made up of 2,000+ small- and medium-sized businesses across North Carolina. “It used to be that you kept your personal life out of your work life and vice versa. And if the pandemic taught us one thing, it was that those lines were blurred.”

Richards said after the pandemic, workers now want more. And employers are starting to listen.

“Employees are picking their employer based on alignment of mission and vision and values,” Richards said. “And this kind of core DNA, is this where i really want to spend a lot of my time.”

One benefit that seems to be popping up more often recently are Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs. When it comes to the mental health benefits they offer, data show employees are using them.

“McLaughlin Young, the MY Group, they’ve said just this far in 2023, they’ve seen a 16% increase in utilization of EAP programs,” Richards said. “And they’ve seen a 20% increase in crisis events -- suicide, workplace violence, death, etc.”

Despite all the time most people spend at work, many Americans aren’t happy about it -- nearly 2 in 5 workers (39%) said work has had a negative impact on their mental health, according to a recent report from the American Psychological Association.

Workplace issues can affect anyone’s mental health -- even the U.S. Surgeon General.

“Like so many people, I’ve also struggled with mental health,” said Dr. Vivek Murthy earlier this year in an appearance on GMA 3. “It’s part of the human experience. And it’s very important that we recognize it’s not a source of shame.”

In his recent report ‘Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being’, Dr. Murthy stated that psychological science shows companies should “listen to workers about their needs, increase pay, and limit communications outside of work hours.”

The report acknowledged that better mental health benefits and policies could cost businesses more money. But Dr. Murthy stated the evidence shows the cost of “not” supporting them is far higher –

workers miss work, produce less, and often disengage from coworkers.

One analysis in 2018 found job stress cost American businesses nearly $200 billion -- and that was “before” the pandemic.

Duncan’s husband is still recovering from his stroke. “It’s a journey,” Duncan says -- and so is she, from the loss of her sister and father.

But she has a new, healthier outlook -- and loyalty to her employer.

“It’s worth it because businesses invest so much in us to perform -- whether it’s training or education or development -- that when someone goes to a life event, what a shame to lose that resource. And once a company supports you the way I’ve been supported, you’re going to stick with the company that stuck with you.

“That’s why I’m here with you today -- I just want to let others know, not just at my firm but other firms, mental health is worth investing in because it’ll get you through difficult times. Not just through, but thriving and doing well in life.”

The American Psychological Association recommends business managers focus on several actions to improve employee mental health:

  • Giving workers more flexibility on where, when, and how they work
  • Offering insurance plans that cover mental health
  • Listening to employees and using their feedback to improve the workplace culture
  • Viewing policies through a lens of equity, diversity and inclusion

(WATCH: The Carolinas Get Real: Charlotte’s Hidden Crisis -- PART 1)

Evan Donovan

Evan Donovan, wsoctv.com

Evan is an anchor and reporter for Channel 9.

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