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Success in the Workplace
with Kristi Tackett-Newburg, Ph.D., LIMHP, CPC

Physically There but Mentally Absent: The Cost of Ignoring Mental Health in the Workplace

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and there is no better time to talk about mental health in the workplace. Mental health problems, both clinical (e.g., major depression, anxiety disorders) and sub-clinical (e.g., psychological distress) are very common among working populations. According to the National Institute of Mental Illness (NIMH), an estimated 43.7 million U.S. adults (aged 18 or older) are diagnosed with a mental illness. In the workplace, that equates to about 1 in 6 workers. While anxiety disorders are most common (affecting 40 million U.S. adults every year), depression remains the leading cause of sick days taken, a trend that continues to move upward.

Another rising trend is the number of college students being diagnosed with mental health conditions. Generational researcher, Jean Twenge, analyzed data from 6.9 million adolescents and adults from all over the country. She examined specific questions related to mental health and found dramatic increases in self-reported problems such as difficulty concentrating, sleep issues, and feeling overwhelmed. Another study by the NIMH found that by the age of eighteen, 35% of U.S. teens will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, 25% will be diagnosed with a substance addiction, and 20% will have a behavioral disorder.

As the number of teens and young adults being diagnosed with mental health conditions continues to rise, there exists an even greater need for companies to make employee mental health a top priority.

Millions of Americans spend approximately 60% of their waking hours (and lifetime) at work. It only makes sense that corporations begin prioritizing the mental health and well-being of their employees. For those that don’t, they not only create major hardships for their employees, they face major losses to their bottom line. This is due (in part) to a lack of employee engagement. Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. between $450-$550 billion in lost productivity each year.

Furthermore, organizations that choose to ignore the mental well-being of their employees, risk creating workplace environments that perpetuate the stigma of mental health. This can quickly become a vicious cycle leading to even greater negative organizational outcomes.

Fear of Repercussions Linked to Presenteeism

Employees who fear being stigmatized will choose not to disclose mental health-related concerns for fear of repercussions. A study of 6,399 employees from 13 U.S.-based companies found that only 29% of employees indicated they would feel comfortable discussing mental health concerns with their supervisor. Another study on workplace stress examined the reasons behind employees’ choice not to disclose stress-related concerns even when their workplace performance was being impacted. Common fears included being labeled as “weak” or that their disclosure would be misinterpreted as a “lack of interest or unwillingness to do their job.” Others feared a lack of confidentiality or not being considered for future promotion opportunities.

Employees who fear being stigmatized are also less likely to take days off from work, even when they need it most. Attending work while sick can have negative consequences for all parties involved. Despite being physically present, these employees are often far from being mentally or intellectually present, a phenomenon known as presenteeism.  According to the Harvard Business Review, more and more employees are choosing to attend work while being sick, which negatively impacts job engagement and performance levels.

Stress has become a U.S. epidemic and employees who lack effective coping skills to manage stress are at an increased risk for presenteeism. A recent Global Corporate Challenge study of nearly 2,000 workers found that employees missed an average of four work days per year; however, those same employees confessed to being unproductive on the job for 57.5 days each year, which equates to about three working months.

Experts estimate costs associated with presenteeism are 5-10 times higher than those related to absenteeism. In the U.S. alone, absent workers cost employers approximately $150 billion per year, while workers who physically attend work but are unproductive cost employers as much as $1,500 billion per year. Organizational leaders must be equipped to handle this complex business problem and determine the contributing factors for presenteeism within their own companies.

Employee Well-Being Is the New Competitive Advantage

There is a reason why companies like Google, Apple, and Zappos are consistently voted as top places to work. Among other things, these organizations know the value of prioritizing the emotional well-being of their employees and they are reaping the benefits of happy employees, strong cultures, and increased profits.

In order to start a movement that will create lasting change, organizations must go above and beyond offering workplace amenities like meditation or yoga (although these greatly help).  There needs to be a greater focus on leadership development programs that will enhance worker knowledge on how to effectively address employee mental health concerns. Programs should include psychoeducation to improve mental health literacy, while also focusing on building leaders’ emotional intelligence skills. Leaders who are able to lead by example will naturally foster a culture that supports attitudes of acceptance, thus reducing mental health stigmas.

Organizations also need policies in place that address how to handle more severe cases of employee mental illness. This includes a referral program for mental health professionals outside of the company and/or offering more robust employee assistance programs.

The long-term investment in psychological health will create returns that outweigh the crippling loss of productivity associated with presenteeism and absenteeism. In fact, a study by ValueOptions found that employees who completed at least one session with a mental health practitioner reported decreased rates of absenteeism and a significant improvement in productivity, happiness, and overall mental health.

It’s time for corporations to be more proactive in the fight to destigmatize employee mental health. 



Gallup. (2015). State of the American Workplace: Employee engagement insights for U.S. business leaders.Retrieved from

Hemp, P. (2004). Presenteeism: at work-but out of it. Harvard business review82(10), 49-58.

Twenge, J. M. (2015). Time period and birth cohort differences in depressive symptoms in the US, 1982–2013. Social Indicators Research121(2), 437-454.

Physically There but Mentally Absent: The Cost of Ignoring Mental Health in the Workplace

Kristi Tackett-Newburg, Ph.D., LIMHP, CPC

Kristi Tackett-Newburg is a business psychologist, licensed psychotherapist, and the CEO/President of Counseling Connections & Associates located in Omaha, Nebraska.  Kristi's research interests include emotional intelligence, talent management and employee engagement. You can connect with her on her website, Facebook or on Twitter @ktackettnewburg

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APA Reference
Tackett-Newburg, K. (2018). Physically There but Mentally Absent: The Cost of Ignoring Mental Health in the Workplace. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 May 2018
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