When it comes to workforce inclusion, significant progress has been made in hiring and retaining people with physical disabilities. To some degree, inclusion has extended to those who live with neurologically based disabilities as well. Amidst these strides, however, one group is often left out of the conversation: people with mental (or psychiatric) health conditions.

While 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies report that they’ve hired applicants with physical disabilities, only 20 percent say they’ve hired people with mental health conditions. Given that one in four adults in the United States lives with a mental health condition, that translates to a huge untapped workforce.

Fortunately, some business leaders are speaking up about this aspect of inclusion. “It’s simply silly” to think that employers would intentionally or unintentionally exclude such a significant percentage people from their workplaces, said Aubrey Blanch, VP of Equitable Operations at Culture Amp.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMSHA), people with mental health conditions tend to be just as productive and dedicated as other employees. Of those already in the workforce, SAMHSA notes, “Employers often do not know if someone has a mental health condition, but if the condition is known to the employer, they often report good attendance and punctuality as well as motivation, good work, and job tenure on par with, or greater than, other employees.”

As for accommodation costs, Blanch observed that they are typically nominal—a fact supported by data. She also emphasized that everyone needs specific support to succeed. Moreover, according to a survey by the Job Accommodations Network (JAN), accommodations for employees with disabilities make the workplace better for everyone.

What is a Mental Health-Related Disability and How Prevalent Are They?

A mental health condition becomes a disability when it substantially limits one or more major life activities. As mentioned above, roughly one in four adults in the United States lives with a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Anxiety and depression are the most prevalent conditions, followed by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bipolar disorder. And high rates of mental health conditions aren’t limited to the United States. Studies predict that one out of every two people, worldwide, will develop a mental health disorder in their lifetime. By 2030, mental health will be the leading cause of disease, globally.

Given that so many people live with a significant mental health condition—and research shows that employment improves mental health—their inclusion in the workforce should be a given. So, why do these individuals face employment barriers?

The answer lies in stigma—negative attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes that society attaches to certain groups. In the case of mental conditions, today’s stigma echoes draconian superstitions dating back centuries. Though time has marked incremental shifts in attitude, much work is still needed to dismantle long-held misconceptions.

The Workplace is No Place for Stigma

Kaiser Permanente found stigma to be prevalent in the workplace, with eight out of 10 employees afraid to mention their condition or seek accommodation. Lyra Health echoes this finding, citing that stigma silences employees, making them “less likely to take steps to support their mental health.” Stigma deters even eager, highly qualified job seekers who fear asking for even the simplest mental health accommodation.

In addition to harming employees and candidates, stigma deprives employers of able, skilled employees. A quiet space or flexible schedule, for example, may be all an employee needs to be a top producer. When fear of an employer’s judgment stops the accommodation discussion before it starts, valuable skillsets remain underutilized or untapped entirely.

Stigma is exacerbated by a limited understanding of mental health as a spectrum, according to stigma expert Professor Stephen Hinshaw. “We often go immediately to extreme cases…a tiny percent of people with very severe, untreated chronic mental illness.” Focusing on extreme cases perpetuates cultural ignorance and fear, silencing those with less severe conditions. To break this cycle, Hinshaw advocates for a shift in workplace culture to encourage open discussions about mental health without shame or fear of repercussions.

Links Between Mental Health Conditions and Excellence

Progress has been made, but lingering misconceptions about mental health continue to hinder workplace inclusion. The most damaging fallacies cast an entire person as wholly “mentally ill,” rather than simply as a person that lives with a mental health condition that affects a certain aspect of their life. But, just as Deafness doesn’t have to impair a person’s ability to communicate effectively, and wheelchair use has no bearing on managerial skills, limits posed by even a severe mental health condition don’t automatically translate to job performance. In fact, data underscores positive correlations between some types of mental illness and success.

In a 2015 study, researcher Dr. Michael Freeman found that 49 percent of entrepreneurs who start a company have experienced a mental illness. A 2016 study published in Molecular Neuropsychiatry revealed that people with bipolar disorder, in particular, possess several business-oriented personality traits, including drive and motivation, ideation originality, and cognitive flexibility. Still further research by Nassir Ghaemi, MD, found similar links between leadership qualities and mental conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression.

People with a tendency toward anxiety tend to also be detail oriented, organized, creative, and punctual. Data indicates that people with certain types of PTSD demonstrate heightened empathy—increasingly found to be an imperative business skill. Moreover, several researchers have found depression underlying the empathy expressed by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other successful leaders. It’s hard to imagine a world where the skills and talents of these luminaries had remained unutilized.

Inclusion Works

Copious research finds several business benefits associated with including people with disabilities in the workforce. Among them are improved work culture, boosted productivity, and increased market appeal. A 2023 study by Accenture found that companies that actively employ and support people with disabilities achieve greater financial outcomes—1.6x more revenue, 2.6x more net income, and 2x more economic profit—compared to peer organizations. A National Institutes of Health review drew similar conclusions, adding increased safety, higher employee retention, better company image, and boosted customer loyalty to the list.

With mental health awarness on the rise, it makes sense for companies to extend inclusion efforts toward those who live with them. And this level of inclusivity “isn’t actually that complicated,” said Blanch. “It simply requires intentionality and effort (that’s rarely about any type of financial cost).”

A big part of that intentionality centers around creating a work culture that normalizes mental health challenges and disabilities. Some companies are already taking innovative approaches to this. In 2023, Mind Share Partners, for example, launched the Leaders Go First campaign—a national initiative that featured a collection of videos from C-level leaders sharing their personal mental health stories. Microsoft, Dove, Unilever, Bell, and Pinterest all feature robust mental health awareness initiatives as well. Still other companies have encouraged open disclosure for some time. Barclay’s “This Is Me” initiative has featured employees sharing their personal mental health jouneys since 2013.

Where stigma is reduced and a few basic accommodations implemented, organizations can reap the benefits of a truly inclusive workforce—one that includes skills and talents that would otherwise go untapped. With labor shortages impacting many industries, employers cannot afford to overlook the one in four adults in the United States living with a mental health condition, many of whom are willing and able to contribute to the workforce. PRIDE Industries has decades of experience helping hundreds of businesses tap the talents and the business benefits of employing people with disabilities, including mental health conditions.

Let Us Help You Build an Inclusive Labor Force

Inclusive workforces, including those that employ people with disabilities, boast 35 percent greater productivity. PRIDE Industries has helped hundreds of companies to make their teams more inclusive, helping recruit, hire, train, and support this reliable talent pool—free of charge to employers.
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