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It’s time for US small businesses to care about mental health

·4-min read

Recently, the Society of Human Resources Executives surveyed approximately 3,100 HR executives about the benefits their companies are providing and of course the obvious ones – healthcare, retirement and paid time off – made the top of the list. But here’s something that should catch your attention if you’re a small business owner: more than 91% of the respondents also said that their company provides some sort of health benefits for mental health, which is up from 86% in 2018 and significantly higher than any levels seen over the past decade.

Related: ‘I’m dealing with stuff’: Naomi Osaka questions her future in tennis

This is not hard to understand. Thanks to the pandemic and other stresses of modern-day life, countless Americans are suffering from mental health challenges. Awareness of the issue has been rising over the past few years, thanks in part to public disclosures by celebrities, from tennis star Naomi Osaka to gymnast Simone Biles. Survey after survey reminds employers that their workers are increasingly stressed and that more attention needs to be paid to their mental health concerns.

And yet many of my clients – small business owners – still don’t seem to be getting the message. Which is why I’m telling them about a recent court case that should get their attention.

According to numerous reports, including this one on legal site JD Supra, a company in Kentucky this past March was ordered to pay an employee $450,000 for wrongfully terminating him after he suffered two panic attacks while at work. The employee, who has an anxiety disorder, was triggered by a birthday party thrown for him and left work abruptly. He was later fired because of “concerns that other employees had been frightened for their safety when the employee suffered the panic attacks.”

After a two-day trial, a jury found in favor of the employee, saying that he had a defined disability and that he was able to perform the essential duties of his job, yet suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability. The award included both prior and future lost wages and benefits, as well as pain and anguish.

Why have I been showing this to my clients? Because my firm serves hundreds of small businesses and most of them fit the typical demographic of an employer-owned company. They are family-run, B2B, industrial or service-oriented and generally still in the control of someone who is over the age of 50, which is consistent with the average age of the US small business owner, according to the Small Business Administration.

This is a generation – my generation – that has been raised to ignore mental health problems. These are things best left to deal with privately and not a matter for the workplace. Mental illness is not like a physical illness, we were told by our parents. It’s just a thing in your head. Switch it off. Get over it.

But that attitude is quickly, and significantly, changing.

Thanks to the pandemic and the growing number of younger workers who openly discuss these issues with their friends and on social media, mental health is no longer a stigma or a problem that’s cast aside or covered up. Smart employers are recognizing that – in order to attract and retain the best people in these times of tight labor – providing mental health benefits needs to be a core part of their overall compensation packages.

“Workplace stress is a fact in every employee’s life,” writes employment and labor attorney Howard Levitt about the Kentucky case. He says that these issues “can politicize the workplace and divert attention from work” and that “aside from operational issues, workplace stressors can also give rise to serious liability on the employer’s part if not dealt with swiftly and appropriately.”

But some of my older clients still don’t get this. They see mental health problems as a weakness, a character flaw, an excuse used by a younger generation that’s “softer” than their own. I realize that for some of these clients, I’m not going to change their minds. But they need to understand that ignoring this trend will result in losing out on new talent and may even cause some of their existing employees to seek other opportunities at companies that better appreciate their situation.

I’m trying to tell them this, with mixed results. But now I’ve got something new to try: the Kentucky case. Because I know that one thing’s for sure: the threat of having to cough up $500K for not doing what they should be doing may be all the motivation some business owners need.


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