Study Finds Mental Health Treatment Improves Worker Productivity

Effective treatment for employee mental health problems leads to significant improvements in productivity, according to a study in the September Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

Led by Michael F. Hilton, Ph.D., of The University of Queensland, the researchers analyzed data on mental health symptoms, treatment, and productivity in more than 60,000 Australian employees. Employees without symptoms of mental health problems (as measured by low scores on a psychological distress scale) were the most productive workers.

While workers with mental health problems who were in treatment had the lowest productivity scores, their distress scores decreased--suggesting that treatment was successful in reducing mental health symptom--and their productivity improved to near-normal levels.

Thus for workers starting mental health treatment, productivity may decline at first. It may be that they need more time off to attend appointments, or their health professional may advise working shorter hours, suggest Hilton and colleagues. "However, once the mental health symptoms have remitted, productivity returns to near that of employees without a mental disorder," the researchers wrote.

Unexpectedly, productivity was near-normal for workers who had mental health problems (high distress) but were not receiving treatment. The researchers speculate that these distressed workers may have been compensating in other ways--for example, by working harder or longer hours.

Previous studies have shown high rates of mental health problems in the working population, yet very low rates of mental health treatment. For most patients with common mental disorders, treatment is effective in reducing symptoms and improving quality of life. Mental disorders have been linked to decreased productivity, at a cost of billions of dollars per year to the U.S. economy.

Added to previous evidence, the new results suggest that "addressing employee mental health increases employee productivity in the workplace [with] the potential for a positive return-on-investment from an employer's perspective," Hilton and colleagues concluded. However, they note that employers may have to wait for treatment to be effective before they see the results in terms of increased productivity.

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