July 8, 2015 | last updated July 8, 2015 8:30 am

The C-Suite tackles mental illness in the workplace

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When a worker gets the flu or breaks a leg, the appropriate response from management is pretty obvious: Encourage them to get whatever medical attention they need and help them get back to work when they can. But when employees face mental health problems, companies often have more trouble responding. For one thing, given the common stereotypes about mental illness, workers may be hesitant to let bosses or coworkers know what's going on.

"It's a huge concern and I think historically that businesses … have not been as comfortable dealing with mental illness as they have with physical illness," said Joyce Murphy, executive vice chancellor of Commonwealth Medicine, the health care consulting division of Worcester's University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Murphy is one of the first Central Massachusetts business leaders to join forces with the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in a campaign called CEOs Against Stigma. She said employers know that issues like depression can hurt employees' productivity and she expects Greater Worcester business leaders to respond well to the campaign.

The campaign asks CEOs to take several steps to encourage more understanding and acceptance of people facing mental illness. Participants educate themselves and other company executives about the issue and encourage a dialog among workers to create a stigma-free workplace. They also make sure appropriate benefits and support are available to workers and help spread public awareness in partnership with NAMI.

According to NAMI, one survey found that depression is the most costly illness—physical or mental—for companies to deal with. Anxiety ranks number five.

Mental health conditions make workplace accidents more likely: in one study, drivers with severe depressive symptoms were 4.5 times more likely than others to get into an accident or have a near miss. The total cost per worker per year for mental disorders was $18,864 in 2002, more than for any other type of condition.

NAMI says mental illness often leads to absenteeism or to "presenteeism," in which workers are physically present but can't function at their best.

"I don't think employers appreciate how much presenteeism there is," said Laurie Martinelli, director of NAMI Mass.

Martinelli said public awareness of mental illness is growing, but funding and resources are still very limited.

The CEOs Against Stigma campaign is funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office. It's providing sub-grants to 10 affiliates to recruit participating CEOs. The campaign's goal is to reach 250 CEOs over two years.

So far, Martinelli said, many of the CEOs who have signed on to the campaign are in the health care sector. But she said the idea is to reach into all industries, since mental health problems are an issue for all kinds of businesses.

Ed Manzi, CEO of Leominster-based Fidelity Bank, one of the campaign participants from outside health care world, called the effort "a natural extension" of the bank's concern about its clients, community and employees.
In a statement, he noted that Fidelity helped create the SHINE Initiative, a Leominster-based organization that works to bring public awareness to mental illness among children and young adults. CEOs Against Stigma extends that work to working adults, he said.

"Given the prevalence of this health issue, we as CEOs need to do our part," Manzi said.

(Freelance reporter Livia Gershon contributed to this story.)
(Correction: Joyce Murphy's title was incorrect in the initial version of this story.)

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