Benefits outweigh costs for workplaces that accommodate people with mental illness

Business case study finds accommodations are a net gain for employers and workers

Published: July 30, 2018

Anna (not her real name) is a high-performing business analyst at a bank. She is also one of the first in the organization to have disclosed her mental health diagnoses of severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her employer is accommodating her condition by providing her with two screens for her computer so she can multitask, extra time to turn in work, and flexibility to work from home or modify hours when needed.

According to an evaluation of Anna’s case, for every dollar spent on supporting her, the organization is getting $7.40 back. The returns include higher work productivity and lower turnover (higher intention to stay)—not just from Anna, but also her co-workers and manager.

This example is part of a study examining the business case for employing people with mental illnesses, led by McMaster University’s Dr. Rebecca Gewurtz with funding from the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). The economic analysis included in the study was conducted by Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Senior Scientist Dr. Emile Tompa.

The study found a net benefit in each of the workplaces in which an accommodation cost-benefit evaluation was conducted. For employers, the economic benefits ranged from two to seven times the costs incurred. For the accommodated workers, they ranged from four to 12 times the costs.

Most people living with a mental illness can and want to work if they are adequately supported, and many employers want to support these individuals, says Gewurtz in explaining the reason for the study. But we need good evidence about how workplaces can build an effective support system for these individuals, and on the costs and benefits of providing accommodations.

A report on the study, entitled A Clear Business Case for Hiring Aspiring Workers, is available at the MHCC’s website (or can be downloaded as a PDF here). The team is now developing a tool that workplace parties can use to make a business case for accommodating workers with mental illnesses in their workplaces. That tool will also be available from MHCC.

Assessing the costs and benefits

To conduct the study, the research team recruited five workplaces identified as “champions” for hiring and accommodating people with mental illnesses. The five case studies represented a range of large and small, private- and public-sector workplaces: the bank mentioned above; a provincial government agency employing 12,000 people; two small businesses in food services and catering, both managed and staffed mostly by individuals living with mental illnesses; and a mid-sized farm operation (which was not included in the economic analysis).

The team interviewed a diverse group of stakeholders from these organizations, including workers living with a serious mental illness, their co-workers affected by the accommodation, their managers and human resources professionals, for a total of 30 respondents. The team also conducted workplace observations and reviewed key organizational documents for the analysis.

The economic analysis by IWH’s Tompa was based on a separate set of interviews. It took into account a broad range of costs and benefits and focused on the difference in costs and outcomes when a worker was accommodated. Costs considered in the analysis included additional worker training, time spent by managers and co-workers to check in with accommodated workers, and additional staff time when accommodated workers were off work and others had to help get work done. Benefits included reduced work absences, improved productivity at work and higher intention to stay.

In addition, many valuable benefits were noted but not included in the computations because their dollar value could not easily be estimated, reveals Tompa. These less quantifiable benefits included greater job satisfaction, improved quality of work life, better job opportunities for the accommodated worker, improved relationships between co-workers, better organizational climate/culture and enhanced employer reputation.

These benefits have great value to organizations and workers, but we can’t easily include them in the computations because it is difficult to put a meaningful price on them, says Tompa. As a result, the study’s benefit-to-cost ratios and net benefit estimates run on the conservative side.

Tompa notes that the interviews used in the economic analysis were designed to capture both upsides and downsides related to an accommodation. For example, one co-worker said that the accommodated worker was so productive that her continued tenure at the organization increased the co-worker’s productivity. However, in another case study, one manager said that the experience of accommodating a worker was frustrating and, as a result, the manager was more intent on finding a job elsewhere.

At the end of the day, in all cases, the accommodations were a win-win for the workplaces we examined, says Tompa. People we interviewed felt that the accommodations were a net benefit, and they told us that. And then we saw that show up in the numbers. The net benefits were all positive, and some were quite substantial.