When Mental Health is the Best Investment

by Mark Hay

February 28, 2015

Mental health disorders are among the most common debilitating afflictions in the world. This reality is almost certainly exacerbated in poorer countries, given a lack of mental health resources and the demonstrated linkage between poverty and the risk of developing adverse psychological conditions. Yet pervasive social stigmas about mental health still make it difficult to convince governments, businessmen, and donors to invest in campaigns for greater resources, especially in economically struggling countries. Fortunately, there may be a way to convince hardheaded people all over the world that contributing to mental health provision efforts will be in their interest. Even if they don’t participate out of the goodness of their hearts or the recognition of the realities of mental health’s personal ravages, there’s a good argument to be made that providing these service just makes practical business sense. Because these days, a growing body of literature suggests funding improved mental health resources is one of the best economic investments a country or company can make.

Among its constituent countries, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development conservatively estimates that up to four percent of national GDP can be lost in a given year to mental health’s blow to productivity. In the U.S., these direct and indirect costs make mental health issues perhaps the most expensive chronic health issue in the nation. Thanks to a lack of data or serious investigations in many developing countries, we often don’t know what the equivalent numbers would be. But some estimates put the global costs of mental health at $2.5 trillion per year, with two-thirds of that amount coming from indirect expenses. And up to 45 percent of that global impact seems to be concentrated in the developing world. So the numbers may be fuzzy, but we’re still looking at hundreds of billions of dollars a year in preventable losses to the national economies of a collection of limited, small, and fragile nations.

In any American workplace, at least a fourth of workers will suffer from a mental health issue in a given year. Some of these cases will manifest in physical symptoms or substance abuse problems. Canada estimates that up to 44 percent of its workers will at one point suffer from some kind of non-debilitating, but substantial, psychological issue. The numbers vary from country to country, but it seems safe to say that no matter where you are, a decent chunk of the population will be suffering from some level of mental duress at work at any particular time.

Where relevant statistics have been available, a huge trove of data has been collected over the past 15 years on how these mental health issues translate into healthcare costs and disability claims expenses. While nations that don’t really recognize or provide for mental health issues don’t have to deal with the aforementioned costs, the data also consistently shows that mental health problems result in quantifiable losses in productivity and profitability due to days skipped, employee turnover, and even just zoning out or slowing down while at work. Estimates from the early 2000s claim an office could lose up to six days of labor per month to absenteeism, and 31 days per month due to presenteeism (being there but working at a low speed), problems up to three times more likely to occur in mentally unhealthy workers than in other groups. In the U.S., mental health disorders contribute to job loss or the inability to find a job for over three million workers per year, and chronic unemployment seems even more common the more severe one’s mental health issues become.

Less quantifiable, but still influential, there’s growing anecdotal evidence that ignoring mental health issues can lead to significant risks in decision-making and leadership of corporations. Over the past few years, a number of high-powered CEOs and other prominent figures in the UK and US have come forward to talk about how their mental health issues affected their ability to do their job and lead their organizations. They have explained how the stigma against seeking help led them to grind themselves into the ground, in the process putting their whole workforces at risk with their poor decision-making and altered mindsets. And for everyone who has come forward, many more business leaders, some of them not subject to boards or regulations, continue to suffer, influencing their businesses from the top down. The issue provides even more of a dilemma for individuals doing business in countries with vulnerable economies where the resources to seek help for themselves, or others in their organizations, often just aren’t there.

It’s not a big revelation that mental health facilities in many parts of the developing world are inadequate. In 2011, the World Health Organization estimated that more than 80 percent of people with major psychological issues in underdeveloped nations lack access to counseling services or relevant medical facilities. Half of the world lives in countries where, on average, there are one or fewer psychologists available per 200,000 citizens. Yet employers in these countries who took the leap and invested in mental health anyway found that 86 percent of employees who received treatment significantly improved their work performance, and thus the productivity and profitability of the company and nation increased at large as well. Some estimates place the return on investment from screenings and candid discussions about depression at $1.70 per $1 spent. And last year, a study suggested that for every $1 spent on creating a mentally healthy workplace—in terms of programs, resources, awareness, and so on—a company can recoup about $2.30.

Granted, spending on mental health programs won’t eliminate stigmas about psychological issues. Even in the US, up to 80 percent of human resources managers think that their employees are holding back information on their mental health issues. And in poor nations, where there are fewer resources to draw upon, it’s not clear that the return on investment for governments, donors, and businessmen would be quite as high in terms of productivity and sheer economic output.

But the existing evidence does suggests that any half-decent effort to increase mental health resources will result in gained productivity, a boost to endemic unemployment, and an improvement in employee turnover. If properly phrased by the many organizations offering services and aid to developing regions, that fairly firm economic promise can potentially override stigmas and hesitations, providing greater access for those who might need it. And if we have the ability to win people over to supporting this goal out of concerns for their wallets, that’s a foothold into an awareness that can, over time, change perceptions and generally improve the lives of millions upon millions of people worldwide—and their economies in the process. It may sound distasteful to discuss the mental health of real people in terms of the dollars and cents it can bring tax collectors or corporations. However, it may be one of the best win-win arguments we have right now to promote these services, especially in the areas that right now, need them the most. So let’s use it.

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When Mental Health is the Best Investment