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Professional News
Employers See Value in Raising Workers’ Awareness of MH Issues
Psychiatric News
Volume 38 Number 7 page 8-9

Each year, thousands of employees show up at the office, yet have difficulty carrying out their duties due to symptoms of an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.

As a result, many employers—including Fortune 500 companies, federal agencies, universities, and even major sports teams—have taken steps to educate their workers about mental illness and create healthy working environments with the Workplace Response Program.

The program is a seven-year-old initiative of Screening for Mental Health Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Wellesley Hills, Mass., which coordinates National Depression Screening Day and other nationwide mental health screening initiatives each year.

According to Workplace Response Program Director Nancy Vineburgh, some major employers who have adopted the screening include Dow Chemical, Dupont, Chevron/Texaco, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the San Francisco Giants.

The program, she said, "raises employee awareness and promotes treatment of common mental disorders" that often go undetected because of stigma, denial, and lack of knowledge on the part of the employee.

Companies pay an annual fee, based on the number of employees, to participate in the Workplace Response Program.

The screening is hoped to decrease "presenteeism," a variant of the word "absenteeism," a situation that has long plagued workplaces in which employees don’t show up to work for a number of reasons.

With presenteeism, the end result is the same. "When employees show up to work with undiagnosed mental health problems, they don’t work well," Vineburgh said. "There are enormous costs associated with lost productivity."

The screening is also featured on the Web sites of several major managed care companies and managed behavioral health companies in a number of states, including Blue Cross/Blue Shield organizations of New Jersey, Kansas, and Delaware. Members can go to the company’s Web site to find out how to complete a free telephone or Internet screening.

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Here’s how it works: An employee of one of the companies participating in the Workplace Response Program may receive a companywide e-mail about the availability of online or telephone screening for depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and alcohol dependence, as well as educational information about the disorders. Or they may see a customized poster advertising the screening throughout the workplace.

Employees are pointed toward an Internet link to the screening, which may be posted on the company’s homepage, or it may link directly to the Web site for Screening for Mental Health Inc., where they can complete an online screening for any of the five disorders.

The confidential screening takes no more than five minutes to complete and provides immediate feedback on whether the screening results are consistent with symptoms of the disorder in question. The employee’s answers appear alongside the corresponding questions.

If the employee screens positive for one of the disorders, the screening program issues a statement advising him or her to seek treatment with the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) and provides the name and phone number of an EAP professional.

Employees of participating companies can also screen themselves—but only for mood disorders and alcohol problems—by telephone. Employees are provided with a toll-free number they can dial to take the screening by pressing the numbers on the telephone key pad. An automated voice delivers the results at the end of the screening, complete with the company’s EAP information.

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Both the telephone and online forms of screening gather information on the employee’s age, gender, and treatment history for aggregate reports that companies can use to track how many people have been screened, scored positive, and planned to seek further evaluation.

Aggregate data from the Workplace Response Program show that since 1999 more than 155,000 people have taken the screening.

The majority of those (112,137) have taken the depression screening, and 56 percent of those screened positive for symptoms consistent with depression and were referred to an EAP provider. Of that group, almost 77 percent said that they planned to seek treatment for their depression.

The second largest group (20,000) took the alcohol screening, and of those, about 58 percent screened positive for an alcohol problem, and about 62 percent of them planned to seek treatment.

Others took the screening for bipolar disorder (8,238), eating disorders (7,972), generalized anxiety disorder (5,673), and posttraumatic stress disorder (1,155), which was added in September 2002.

In addition to the educational materials disseminated to employers about mental illness, the Workplace Response Program uses psychiatrists and mental health professionals to lead a teleconference series with company leaders on a monthly basis.

In mid-March, for instance, Vineburgh facilitated a conference call in which Robert J. Ursano, M.D., chair of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., spoke with EAP professionals and occupational health and medical directors in participating companies. Ursano, who is also director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, led a discussion on the psychological impact of trauma and implications for the workplace.

He told Psychiatric News that the teleconference series "is a catalyst to advance new ideas, such as disaster planning and the mental health impact of disaster" and that he was "struck by the interest these employers expressed in learning how to apply these new principles to safeguard employees’ sense of security and well-being during these uncertain times."

More information on the Workplace Response Program can be accessed on the Web at www.mentalhealthscreening.org/isp/features.htm by clicking on "Workplace Response Program."

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