‘I am currently suffering’: Most employers aware of staff mental health struggles, survey says

The survey also examines employer addiction-related attitudes and resources

By: - July 28, 2023 6:30 am
mental health

Indiana’s employers reported mixed perceptions and results on mental health and substance misuse in a survey released Thursday. (Getty Images)

Almost two-thirds of Hoosier employers knew they had employees struggling with mental health last year, according to a Wellness Council of Indiana survey released Thursday — but just a quarter trained management on how to spot the signs and take action.

The nonprofit, a subsidiary of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, also found that less than half of employers had procedures in place for when they suspect staff members are misusing alcohol or other drugs, though the majority reported suffering consequences from that misuse.

“We want mental health to be as important as physical health, and you have to have both to show up to do — and be — your best everyday at work,” Executive Director Jennifer Pferrer told reporters Thursday.

“Individuals are more likely to call in for a headache, or maybe they’re just not feeling well,” she said. “But for them to … feel comfortable calling in because they need a mental health day — very, very few employees are willing to do that.”

A total of 465 employers, representing 10 industries and operating throughout the state, participated in the survey — the third since 2019. Pferrer said the survey was prompted by Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desire for an employer response to the opioid epidemic.

About 56% of the respondents representing their organizations were in human resources and upper management, though some owners, supervisors and safety workers took part.

Mixed results on mental health

About 64% of employer respondents said they were aware of one or more staff members “struggling with their mental health,” up slightly from 58% in 2021.

And about 90% said they knew about it because the employees had communicated directly with them, also a slight increase — but for others, the response was personal.

I am currently suffering immensely,” one respondent wrote.

I am the one who is struggling,” another wrote.

“The employee is me,” read a third quote highlighted in the report.

An overwhelming 93% of respondents at least somewhat agreed that it “makes good business sense” to recognize and respond to mental health dilemmas, but fewer said they were prepared.

About 77% at least somewhat agreed that their organizations had “adequate” resources to support employee mental health, and 72% said they had a professional or other resource identified to address mental health.

About two-thirds of respondents said they felt comfortable talking to employees directly about mental health — with human resources professionals slightly more likely to agree — but just 26% said their organizations actually include mental health in management training.

Most companies that took this year’s survey don’t believe substance abuse is a problem for their organization.

Pferrer called training the “most helpful action employers can take,” in a news release, adding, “Have someone or more than one person who can recognize the signs and provide sincere engagement to get the employees to the adequate resources they need.”

She said that training could be part of onboarding, or ongoing education. The council itself offers a mental health-focused first aid program.

Discrepancies in substance mis-use responses

The study highlighted a mismatch in how employers perceived drug problems.

Indiana’s employers largely recognized the prevalence of substance use disorders and misuse throughout their communities — 89% at least slightly agreed — but few thought it was a problem for them, at just 8%.

“Employers are saying that this is a problem in their community, but they’re not realizing that the people in the community are members of their workforce,” Pferrer said.

“We want employers to understand that substance use is happening within their workplace. It is impacting their employees, and if it’s not their employees directly, it’s their family,” she continued.

Despite the low share of respondents admitting substance misuse was a problem for their organizations, significant proportions reported negative consequences related to misuse.

About 56% said they’d experienced absenteeism as a result, and 38% logged decrease productivity, according to the study. Smaller shares reported worker shortages, higher health insurances costs, “accidents,” thefts, negative public relations and increased workers’ compensation.

About two-thirds of respondents were familiar with alcohol and other drug services in their counties, and a similar share said their organizations had identified professionals or other resources for employees needing help with alcohol or drug misuse.

But treatment can be expensive.

While 93% of employers said they provided staff members with health insurance, only 76% at least somewhat agreed that that insurance included “adequate benefits” to meet treatment needs for alcohol and other drugs.

And just 13% included Narcan, also known as naloxone, in their jobsite first-aid kits. Public administration and service industry organizations were slightly more likely to provide the nasal spray, which can reverse life-threatening opioid overdoses, while manufacturers were slightly less likely.

“We have a long way to go to ensure that it is appropriately distributed across the state,” Pferrer said of the treatment. “It’s easy, something that we encourage all employers to have with their [automated external defibrillators] or their glucagon or their EpiPens.”


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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie joins the Indiana Capital Chronicle after covering city government and urban affairs for the Indianapolis Business Journal for more than a year. She graduated from Northwestern University in March 2021, and has reported for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and student publications in Evanston, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Doha, Qatar.