Is work bad for our health? Two-thirds of employees say workplace issues negatively impact their sleep, and half report engaging in unhealthy behaviors (like drinking, drug use, or lashing out at others) to cope with workplace stress, and more than half say they're afraid to take a day off to attend to their mental health. That's all according to a 2019 study by Mental Health America (MHA) of over 9,000 employees. 

That only accounts for the mental health issues that people deal with because of work. Outside of work, almost half of people in the U.S. will meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition in their lifetime. 

It's important that employers pay attention, not only because they should care about their workers, but because the toll of this epidemic isn't felt by individuals alone. Businesses also bear the cost when workplaces don't support wellness.

MHA found that more than half of respondents would not recommend their workplace to others and close to half report looking for a new job "several times per week." And the American Psychiatric Association's Center for Workplace Mental Health found the cost of depression alone to the U.S. economy is $210.5 billion annually.

Other mental health issues increase the cost, like alcoholism ($240 billion annually) and substance abuse ($276 million annually), bringing the total cost of mental health issues paid by U.S. businesses to almost half a trillion dollars every year.

Of course, my work as an entrepreneur informs my feelings on this topic. I've built flexible and remote work companies around two things: ideas that I deeply believe in, and people (whole people, not just workers). 

People's happiness, health, and confidence at work is directly related to their happiness, health, and confidence in life, and vice versa. To uphold our part of that equation, employers need to offer supportive, engaging, and caring cultures. Here's how you can do exactly that:

Embrace Flexible Work

Too often, flexible work options like remote work, flexible schedules, and reduced schedules are seen an optional, "warm, fuzzy" benefit for workers. The truth is that flexible work is more often a need than a want. It doesn't just benefit the workers; flexible work also benefits employers. It can play a big role in preventing, supporting, and treating mental health issues, in addition to benefiting recruiting, retention, real estate costs, productivity, and more.

Businesses need to understand their options for flexibility and which are the most in-demand by workers. Remote work is the most desired flexible work option: three quarters of professionals saying working remotely 100 percent of the time is the work option of choice of more than 7,000 professionals surveyed in my company FlexJobs' 2019 flexible work survey

Flexible schedules are the second most popular flexible work option, followed by reduced or part-time hours, alternative schedules, occasional remote work, and freelancing. 

Allow Employees to Schedule Their Own Time

Flexible work options allow people to work where and when they are most focused, increasing productivity, enjoyment, and performance. It's important for you to allow them to schedule health-related appointments with less conflict and guilt related to missing work. Ideally, encourage employees to integrate daily self-care, such as walking, taking an exercise class, or seeking quiet time

Educate Your Staff on Their Benefits

Widely-available flexible work options could create supportive, mentally healthy workplaces and reduce escalating stress levels. MHA says only slightly more than 10 percent of those with mental illnesses are uninsured and a 2008 law requires parity between the coverage of services for mental and physical health. But 90 percent of people are unfamiliar with their options and there is still stigma around seeking treatment.

Employers should educate workforces on their mental health coverage and provide the flexibility for people to use it. The benefits of mental health treatment ripple outward to families, workplaces, and communities.

I can think of far too many friends or colleagues who have had depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, and many other issues that directly impacted their work situations. 

This is why I am such an advocate for flexible work. I believe it can help improve the health and happiness of our nation's workforce and our communities, and I believe it can help reverse the advancement of mental illness. Flexible work options are a critical part of the solution to this crisis.

Published on: Dec 2, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.