Human Resources and Benefits

Supporting Mental Wellness in the Workplace

stress and depression

When not dealt with appropriately, both chronic stress (persistent, long-lasting) and acute stress (rapid onset, short duration) can lead to depression in susceptible people. This article discusses the connection between stress and depression and how you can provide support for your employees.

Mental Health by the Numbers

It is estimated only 17 percent of U.S. adults are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health. Mental health being “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Nearly 50 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime. Depression is the most common type of mental illness and generally affects more women than men.

Depression is a leading cause of workplace productivity losses and increased absenteeism and presenteeism (attending work while sick). As the number of people dealing with depression increases, there is a corresponding increase in medical, prescription, and disability costs.

The Connection Between Stress and Depression

To a certain degree, stress is good for you. It can keep you alert and motivated and prepare you to respond to dangerous situations. It can even improve your performance in certain situations. However, for those who are susceptible, prolonged stress or too much stress can lead to depression.

Chronic stress causes an increase in certain hormones, including cortisol, and a reduction in serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. These changes have been found to be associated with depression. When these chemical systems are out of balance, biological processes such as sleep, appetite, and energy levels are affected as well as mood and emotions.

There is a circular effect associated with stress and depression. When people are stressed, they tend to set aside healthy lifestyle habits such as exercise and healthy diet and even avoid contact with friends and family who generally act as a buffer from stress and depression. They may also increase unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or drinking. These behaviors can increase the existing stress burden and result in depression.

Mental Health and the Workplace

Stress and depression are caused by a variety of factors, some work related and others by personal factors. Regardless of the cause, if not dealt with properly, these conditions can have a significant impact on productivity and performance among your employees. In some cases the impact may be a decrease in focus, mental engagement, job satisfaction, or motivation. This could lead to employee presenteeism, which means the employee is at work but not fully functioning. In other cases, stress and depression may manifest themselves physically in symptoms such as back pain or gastrointestinal disorders which may lead to an increase in employee absenteeism.

What Can Employers Do?

Whether the cause of stress is work related or not, providing support for your employees to deal with stress appropriately will benefit your organization. While many employers offer wellness programs and support for their employees to utilize, the bulk of these programs focus on the physical aspects of well-being. However, optimal physical health is highly impacted by the mental and emotional state of the individual. So it makes sense to provide support for both the physical and mental well-being of your employees.

Incorporate resources and tools into your wellness program that give employees the opportunity to practice and adopt stress management strategies. In addition, an employee assistance program (EAP) can be helpful in providing counseling services designed to address significant life problems for your employees. If you are providing these resources, it is important that you promote them on a regular basis so employees are aware of what is available and more apt to use the services when needed.

In addition to wellness programs and EAPs, here are some additional suggestions for helping employees manage stress:

  • Create and enforce a return-to-work policy and program. This can be effective in reducing stress and keeping employees engaged if they are on leave due to an injury or a mental illness. Click here to learn more about return-to-work programs.
  • Implement a work-life balance strategy that protects and encourages work-life balance among employees. This can help reduce illness, absenteeism, and presenteeism.
  • Encourage your employees to engage in healthy lifestyle activities that help reduce stress and increase resilience to life’s challenges. These activities may include a regular exercise program, a healthy diet, moderation in alcohol consumption, adequate sleep, strong relationships, appropriate use of vacation time, and making time for one’s self.

Investing in resources geared towards both the mental and physical health of your employees can result in increased productivity, stronger employee morale, and lower turnover among your workforce. For support in implementing these resources, please contact your Leavitt Group insurance advisor.


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