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How to Address A Trillion Dollar Issue: 6 Triggers Of Emotional Distress

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As more public figures, such as Beyonce and Britain’s Prince Harry, openly discuss their struggles with mental health, more attention is being focused on a growing global issue. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of The World Health Organization (WHO), has called on people to encourage conversations about depression and “scale up” mental health services. On top of this, awareness campaigns such as the WHO’s “World Mental Health Day” aim to destigmatize the global issue of mental health and emotional distress.

As well as the toll on someone’s overall health, emotional distress also has other implications: Depression magnified by social isolation is set to be the world’s costliest disease burden by 2030, placing an enormous pressure on primary care providers and caregivers, as well as employers. In the U.S. alone, depression and anxiety, including co-occurring conditions, cost businesses $210.5 billion every year.

In Depth

The “emotional wellbeing” or “emotional fitness” of people is becoming an increasingly important issue for employers.

The language used can be equally important if we are to help reduce the stigma surrounding the issue. Stephanie Pronk, Senior Vice President, Health Transformation, Aon, explains the emergence of the term: “‘Emotional fitness’ is a new term that is intended to bring together typical aspects of physical fitness with the mental and emotional aspects of human performance.”

By adopting the term “emotional fitness,” people will be more able to see that there are ways to improve their own – just as they would with physical fitness.

It’s forecast that by 2020 the prevalence of mental health issues – such as emotional disorders and substance dependence – will surpass all physical diseases as the leading cause of disability in the U.S. The cost of mental health issues is also increasingly dramatically. Globally, depression will become more widespread and, magnified by social isolation, it will become the most expensive disease in the world by 2030. Today, anxiety disorders cost the U.S. economy more than $42 billion per year.

In an average week in the U.S., 5 million people miss work due to stress and an estimated 4 million work days are lost due to depression. At the same time, 800,000 people visit a doctor because of a mental health problem, while 5 million prescriptions are written for anti-depressants. All of these factors are having a profound effect on the workplace.

Identifying employees in need of support and then providing access to care is of paramount importance in maintaining the overall health of your workforce.

The 6 Key Triggers Of Emotional Distress

At Work

The root causes of emotional distress lie in the everyday challenges we all face. Eventually, with enough time and intensity, emotional distress can escalate and develop into overwhelming anxiety or an inability to handle those difficult situations everyone has to deal with every day. Rod Hart, Vice President, Health Transformation, Aon, outlines six primary triggers that lead to emotional distress in the workplace:

    • Relational stress: One of the top reasons employees reach out to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) is relational stress stemming from inter-personal conflicts, both in their personal lives and with co-workers. Such stress highlights the need for employees to better learn how to communicate in an assertive and healthy manner, as well as understand and promote conflict resolution skills.
    • Social isolation: While spending time alone is often important for people to take time and reflect, social interaction can be equally important. However, people and families are seemingly feeling more isolated, in part because of their attachment to digital devices and technology. Social media, in particular, can be leading people to feel more isolated while giving the illusion of social interaction.
    • Chronic job-related issues: The American Psychological Association (APA) found that 65 percent of Americans cited work as a top source of stress. This type of stress does not necessarily “switch off” once employees leave the office and can take a serious mental and physical toll. There are many factors contributing to work-related stress, from excessive workloads to lack of engagement. Workloads are a particularly measurable element, and organizations could consider implementing policies to help monitor this.

  • Personal finance: A recent study by PWC found that more than half of workers report being stressed about their finances. This is prompting more employers to implement “financial wellbeing programs” that aim to help their workforce to properly manage their money and establish healthier financial habits.
  • Lack of social niceties: Little things can make a big difference. As organizations become more global and increasingly rely on technology for cross-team communication, there might be a perception that work is becoming less personal. The lack of social niceties, such as acknowledgment of the effort required to complete an urgent task, can create a workplace where employees feel disconnected. Here, corporate culture plays a strong role – and changes need to be implemented from the top down, with senior staff leading by example to create an environment that is welcoming to all employees.
  • Ageism and generational concerns: At a time when technology is evolving rapidly and startup companies have youthful workforces, generational differences can be the cause of division in the workplace. One way of preventing – or unintentionally adding to – these divisions is to promote appropriate communication in the workplace.

Barriers To Progress

Individuals suffering from mental health and emotional distress issues still face the challenge of not getting them diagnosed. Regardless of progress made to help destigmatize these conditions, the negative connotations of mental health still exist if someone admits they have a problem: Some don’t want to appear weak and worry that it could cost them their jobs or damage their relationships with co-workers. However, this stigma often goes both ways. Employers too can be overly cautious about overstepping employees’ personal boundaries when it comes to reaching out to help.

“A big part of treating mental health is normalizing it,” explains Hart. “Because of the stigma, there’s a lot of concern on the part of front-line managers as well as those in ‘human resources’ roles – such as HR benefits managers and HR generalists – who fear they could make the situation worse.”

Often, an organization isn’t prepared to deal with individuals struggling with mental health related issues. Hart explains: “In recent surveys, we’ve seen close to 60 percent of supervisors and managers saying they don’t have the skillsets to begin to address mental health or emotion-related issues – especially as it relates to workplace challenges.”

Investing In Mental Health: The Business Case

Perhaps the strongest business case for investment in employees’ emotional wellbeing is the boost it gives to productivity and the impact it has on costs. Medical expenses for an employee with depression are 48 percent higher than one without, equating to an average of 5.6 productive work hours each week – close to 15 percent of a 40-hour working week.

Although absenteeism due to mental health and emotional distress is an issue, even “presenteeism” – when employees are at their desks but are disengaged and unproductive – can hit productivity. “If you compare turnover of an employer who has an ‘emotionally fit’ workplace strategy in place with an average employer, there’s a 30 percent difference,” says Hart, “indicating that an investment in emotional wellbeing does impact performance.”

When the direct and indirect impacts of mental health issues are considered, it becomes clearer that investing in employee mental and emotional wellbeing pays off.

According to Hart, some practical steps employers can take to help promote better mental wellness in their workplaces include:

  • Reducing the stigma around mental health: Create an “emotional fitness” charter built around a strategy to raise awareness, reduce stigma, foster a climate of trust, and boost participation in mental and emotional wellbeing activities.
  • Understanding and addressing workplace “triggers”: Evaluate your work environment to identify and address issues that negatively impact employees’ mental and emotional health.
  • Ensuring proper training: Train front-line leaders and managers to spot the subtle warning signs of a struggling employee, identify opportunities to offer support, and lead employees to available services to get help. Practice the 3Rs: Recognize, Respond, Refer.
  • Delivering supportive interventions: Promote on-site classes or seminars where employees can learn stress resilience, mindfulness techniques, and other coping skills to stay emotionally fit.

Pronk elaborates: “Whereas it may be true that work and the work environment may generate stress and emotional health concerns for workers, it also seems that the workplace can have a positive effect when emotional fitness becomes a focal point to bring about positive impacts.”

If the result of positive actions is to remove or reduce stress in the workplace, benefits can be seen across the organization – including an increase in employee engagement and productivity. Long-term, a happier and less-stressful working environment may even contribute to the overall improvement of your employees’ physical health.


Talking Points

“…if I have depression, very few places have an accommodation policy for that. And yet we know that the longer somebody is off work, the less chance that they will actually return in a timely way, if at all” – Louise Bradley, CEO, Mental Health Commission of Canada

“People need to feel at ease raising issues at work, and trust that they will be supported. Training for line managers needs to cover how to have these kinds of sensitive discussions with members of their team and where to signpost them to help if needed” – Dr Jill Miller, Public Policy Adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, U.K.

Further Reading