Mental Illness Awareness Week means it's a great opportunity for leaders to start a critical conversation about mental health. Yet most probably won't do it.

This is unfortunate, since an employee's mental health affects every aspect of job performance.

Staying on task, communicating with others, managing time, regulating emotions, adapting to change, learning new skills, and developing creative ideas are just a few things that may be impaired every time an employee's mental health declines.

It's estimated that about one out of every five adults has a mental illness like depression, anxiety, or ADHD.

Yet only 43 percent of people with a mental illness actually receive treatment in any given year. Untreated mental illness takes a serious toll on the workforce.

How Mental Illness Affects the Workforce

According to the World Economic Forum, mental illness has a greater impact on economic output than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Research also estimates that untreated anxiety and depression cost society $1.5 trillion annually.

Mental illness is the leading disability across the globe. And the Center for Prevention and Health Services estimates that mental illness and substance abuse issues cost employers between $79 billion and $105 billion each year.

Here's why mental illness is so costly for employers:

  • Increased absences from work. Studies estimate that over half of work absences are due to mental illness, not physical illness.
  • Decreased productivity. Employees with mental illness have more trouble concentrating and staying on task. One study found that depression reduces cognitive performance about 35 percent of the time, which makes tasks take longer and leads to increased mistakes.
  • Elevated health care costs. Untreated mental illness is directly linked to physical illness. Individuals with depression, for example, have a 40 percent higher risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic disease than the general population. And almost 20 percent of adults with mental illness also experience a drug or alcohol problem. Depression is the most costly health condition, and anxiety ranks fifth--with obesity, arthritis, and back pain in between.

The One Thing Every Boss Should Do

Many employees are likely unaware that they even have a mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety. Some of them may be so used to living with their symptoms that they don't notice them, and others might attribute their symptoms to physical health issues.

So the simplest and most effective thing every boss can do during Mental Illness Awareness Week is to make employees aware of free online screening tools offered by Mental Health America.

Here's how it can work:

  • Send a quick email to all employees announcing that it's Mental Illness Awareness Week, with an invitation to take the free screening tests. Explain that they can take the tests anonymously, and it's free of charge.
  • Employees who click on the link will be taken to a page that offers a variety of tests, such as the "depression test" and the "addiction test." After answering a few questions about their symptoms, the computer generated scores will tell them whether they might be at risk for a specific mental illness.
  • Then, they'll be given information on how to proceed--such as a suggestion to speak with their primary care physician.
  • Once employees are aware that they may have an issue, they'll be more likely to talk to their physicians and get the treatment they need to feel better.

Create a Mentally Healthy Workplace

Of course, sending a solo email won't solve the mental health crisis. Leaders need to work on fostering a mentally healthy workplace.

Part of the overall plan should involve supporting employees' efforts to get treatment. That may mean allowing employees flexibility as they attend therapy appointments.

Additionally, employers should encourage employees to create a healthy work-life balance and to exercise, allow for breaks where employees can socialize, and offer stress reduction and mental strength building workshops.