The Effects of Mental Illness in the Workforce

The Effects of Mental Illness in the Workforce

Many employees suffer from mild to moderate psychological problems. This fact is often overlooked because people tend to hide their psychological problems from their employers and co-workers. Approximately 20 percent of Americans, ages 15-55 experience depression and/or anxiety symptoms each month.

Many employees with psychological disorders are afraid to seek treatment for fear of stigmatization within the workplace. These individuals are afraid of being demoted, passed over for promotions and/or fired for having psychological problems. In other words, employees with mental illness are afraid of losing their jobs because of their mental health status.

In some cases, management may want to be supportive, but lack the skills and tolerance to effectively communicate or cope with a mentally ill employee. Some companies offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to help employees effectively cope with their psychological problems at work.


One of the most common psychological disorders in the workplace is depression (manic depression and clinical depression). Approximately 5-10 percent of employees suffer from some form of depression each year. Depressed employees tend to exhibit mood-related symptoms such as anxiety, agitation and/or irritability. They also tend to experience chronic headaches, muscle pains, stomachaches and backaches.

Furthermore, these employees tend to become unresponsive, distracted, directionless and unproductive while at work. In addition, people with depression often suffer from insomnia so co-workers and managers may find the depressed employee sleeping on the job. It can also negatively affect the employee’s reasoning and decision-making skills.

A recent study found that depressed employees called out approximately 27 times during that year. The study also found that out of those 27 days, 9 days were approved sick days and 18 days were unplanned absences. Furthermore, depressed employees were twice as likely to be fired from the jobs or to habitually switch jobs.

Another study found that approximately 55% of clinically depressed employees received treatment within the last year and of those who sought treatment for depression, approximately 40% considered their treatment beneficial in the workplace.

Manic Depression (Bipolar Disorder)

Approximately 1-3% of employees suffer from manic depression each year. Manic depression, also referred to as bipolar disorder, is a form of depression that consists of fluctuating moods: manic and depressed. When the employee is manic, he/she may appear overly excited or overactive. He/she may also be especially creative, but not lack the focus to complete projects that he/she starts. When the employee is in the midst of a full-blown mania episode, he/she may become unruly, confrontational, disrespectful and/or aggressive.

The manic employee may deliberately disobey company rules and demonstrate reckless behaviors. When the employee is the in the midst of a depression flare, he/she may display nervousness, sleepiness, restlessness, loss of interest and reduced productivity. Co-workers and managers are more likely to notice when the employee is suffering from a mania episode, but current studies indicate that depression flares are more detrimental to workplace productivity then mania episodes.

One recent study found that manically depressed employees missed 28-30 days each year due to their manic depression. The study also found that 75% of those in the study reported seeking treatment for manic depression. Out of those 75%, more than half stated that their treatment was beneficial in the workplace. In addition, participants reported that they were more likely to receive effective treatment from a psychologist, counselor or psychiatrist then a general practitioner.

Anxiety Disorders

Another common psychological disorder in the workplace is anxiety. Approximately 5-8% of employees suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives. Only 1/3 of people with an anxiety disorder seek treatment and out of that 1/3, the condition may go undiagnosed for a decade. Employees that suffer from some form of anxiety typically exhibit agitation, lethargy, lack of focus and/or nervousness. These employees also need continual support, attention and reassurance. These employees may also complain of chronic aches and pains.

Studies suggest that employees with anxiety disorders are more likely to call out sick for work with complaints not for psychological distress, but for insomnia, stomachaches, backaches and/or chest pains. The studies also found that employees that suffer from generalized anxiety call out sick at the same rate as those that have clinical depression.


Hilton, M. F. (2009). The association between mental disorders and productivity in treated and untreated employees. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 51(9), 996–100.

Wang P. S. (2008). Making the business case for enhanced depression care: The National Institute of Mental Health– Harvard work outcomes research and cost-effectiveness study. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 50(4), 468–475.


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