Poor mental health is costing billions of dollars in lost productivity

The US has a mental health crisis and it’s costing the economy tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity.

According to a recent online Gallup survey with 15,809 respondents, 19% of US workers rate their mental health as “fair” or “poor,” and that cohort is four times more likely to have unplanned absences because of it. Based on those results, Gallup projected that these workers are estimated to have almost 12 days of unplanned absences a year, costing the US economy $47.6 billion in lost productivity on an annual basis.

“It’s a real wake-up call for US employers that the job has a net negative impact on mental health,” Dan Witters, research director for the Gallup National Health and Wellbeing Index, told Yahoo Finance, adding that the total cost was “bigger ” than expected.

The survey found that 33% of US workers feel their job has a “somewhat negative” impact on their mental health while 7% indicated an “extremely negative” impact. It also asked individuals to rate their overall mental health — 13% indicated excellent, 34% said very good, and 34% said good.

Together, those individuals missed an average of 2.5 workdays per year due to mental health. Meanwhile, 16% rated their mental health fair while 3% said poor, combining for an average of 11.8 missed days a year. These absences can be attributed to a number of factors, including physical and mental burnout, attending therapy during normal working hours, or simply needing a “mental health day” to recharge.

‘There’s not enough therapists and psychiatrists’

Mental health care in the US has been inundated with systemic issues for decades.

One of the main reasons why is because research and training for mental health care and for physical health care are treated separately. This has led to a limited or lack of insurance coverage, a lack of available treatment types, and a lack of behavioral health expertise — which includes both mental illness and substance use disorders.

“Many psychiatrists and therapists do not accept insurance, so you have to pay out of pocket if you want to receive coverage,” Darcy Gruttadaro, chief innovation officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), told Yahoo Finance. “And many people can’t afford to pay because it’s extremely expensive. So there’s not enough therapists and psychiatrists in health plan networks.”

Mental health activist Dior Vargas sits in a session with her therapist.  (Shaul Schwarz, Verbatim/Getty Images for Be Vocal)

Mental health activist Dior Vargas sits in a session with her therapist. (Shaul Schwarz, Verbatim/Getty Images for Be Vocal)

Even when someone does find an in-network provider, they are often not accepting new patients or have long waits for an actual appointment.

“Those are routine circumstances that people experience in trying to access care,” Gruttadaro said. “They can’t afford to pay out of pocket, have a long wait, or can’t find someone who is accepting new patients, whether or not they’re in-network.”

Within the workplace, many employees find that accessing mental health support services is not easy. In fact, according to the Gallup survey, 33% of workers don’t actually know if their employer provides easily accessible mental health support services, while 24% indicated that they know they don’t.

And according to Wendi Safstrom, president of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Foundation, the US health care system is vastly underprepared to handle any more demand when it comes to mental health care.

“So if you’re employed and you have access to different kinds of employee assistance programs or perhaps even therapists, I think the health care system overall is going to be inundated as more and more people are comfortable talking about mental health and wellness and wanting to become better and get better, feel better, think better,” she told Yahoo Finance. “Our health care system is going to be overwhelmed.”

Certain industries have more employees reporting mental health struggles than others, according to the survey. For example, 75% of construction employees and 71% of those in the arts/design/entertainment/sports media category either have no easily accessible mental health support services in the workplace or are unsure if they exist. Meanwhile, among those reporting their jobs have had an “extremely negative” impact on their mental health, government and public policy workers saw the highest rate at 13% followed by transportation (goods) at 10%.

“I heard a quote [recently]: There’s so much noise and not enough music,” Safstrom said. “There are 400,000 apps if you were to go online and look for mental health and wellness apps — everything from yoga to meditation — more driving towards that wellness angle. And I think employers, both large and small, are looking to find what’s being proven in terms of having an impact on their employees’ mental health. They’re making investments, they’re investing in EAPs, they’re investing in mental health and other mental health resources or coverage within their organizations.”

At the same time, she continued, employers are struggling to understand if these investments are working and why or why not people are accessing them.

“So I think we’re in this evolutionary phase where there are some organizations who were ahead of the game and had a strategy and resources in place, but even the larger organizations that had a bigger infrastructure when it came to HR are taking a step back and saying: What’s working elsewhere?” Safstrom said. “And that’s really the phase we’re in right now.”

The COVID effect

The coronavirus pandemic only worsened America’s mental health crisis.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study published in February 2021 found that nearly 12% of adults surveyed seriously considered suicide in the previous month while 29.6% reported COVID-19-related trauma- and stressor-related disorder symptoms, 33% reported anxiety or depression symptoms, and more than 15% reported increased substance use.

Remote work served as both a blessing and a curse for many employees throughout the pandemic— it allowed flexibility for workers but also limited face-to-face interactions, which some individuals relied upon amid a period of isolation and uncertainty.

At the height of the pandemic, however, mental health providers were in short supply.

“The mental health system in the US is extremely hard to navigate, whether you’re navigating it through employer-sponsored benefits or otherwise,” Gruttadaro said. “We have a shortage of psychiatrists and therapists, first of all, so we don’t have enough to meet the need, even pre-pandemic before we had an uptick in the number of people experiencing mental health conditions.”

The State of Mental Health in America 2022 report indicated that for every mental health provider in the US, there are an estimated 350 individuals in need of care, although it did note that “these figures may actually be an overestimate of active mental health professionals, as it may include providers who are no longer practicing or accepting new patients.”

Dr.  William Jason Sulaka looks at his computer as Dorene Blain leads a tutorial session on how to conduct virtual appointments on March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

Dr. William Jason Sulaka looks at his computer as Dorene Blain leads a tutorial session on how to conduct virtual appointments on March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

“We don’t have enough psychiatrists and therapists, and we probably won’t in the near future,” Gruttadaro said. “We need to make sure we’re supporting primary care in delivering effective integrated care models. There’s only one model that’s been well-studied and that’s the collaborative care model, but others are evolving. So we need to support primary care in routine screening for common mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, substance use, and others.”

According to 2022 survey by AHIP, the number of mental health providers covered by insurance has increased by an average of 48% over the past three years. Additionally, the survey found, 78% of health plans “have increased payments to providers in efforts to recruit more high-quality professionals to their plan networks.”

“If there were ever something good to come out of the pandemic, it’s this realization, a recognition that mental health and wellness impact just about everyone, if not an individual, between anxiety, depression, stress caused by everything from kids having to be homeschooled to folks who have had diagnosed mental illnesses that are being treated but being afraid to talk about it,” Safstrom said. “It’s made people feel more comfortable bringing it up because it’s impacting so many people. It’s given it a sense of normalcy to talk about mental health in the workplace.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at adriana@yahoofinance.com.

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