Stress, Mental Health, and the Workforce

by Mike DeBlasi | February 28, 2023 10:20 am

In November 2022, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [1](OSHA) issued a bulletin[2] about stress and mental health in the workplace. Employers should pay attention to this for a couple of reasons. If you aren’t already thinking about these issues, the bulletin provides helpful information. The bulletin is also a window into how OSHA may approach this area of potential regulation in the future.

A Growing Concern

Escalating mental health problems for many Americans — such as anxiety, depression, and panic attacks — have been in the news since the onset of the pandemic. However, pandemic-generated mental health problems have been the mere amplification of a current public health crisis in many parts of the country.

Mental Health America [3](MHA), an organization that advocates for integrating behavioral health services into our national healthcare model, monitors the prevalence of mental health conditions in all 50 states and correlates these figures with access to services.

Their report[4] each year provides an evidence-based snapshot of the mental health status of the nation. Among the key findings in the 2022 Report:

In the National Survey on Drug Use and Health[5], the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that about one in six Americans (16.5 percent) — about 46,300,000 people — experienced a substance use disorder diagnosis in the past year. Some Americans are dealing with mental illness and substance use disorders simultaneously. More than one in ten 18-25-year-olds reported experiencing both, and almost half (46 percent) of the people in this age bracket experience one or the other.

Stress and Mental Health

Stress is not a mental illness, but there are connections between stress and mental health conditions — such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even psychosis — that cannot be ignored. According to the American Psychological Association [6](APA), a key area for research is needed to fully understand why some people are more affected by stress than others. However, a significant amount of research clearly shows that genetics, early life experiences, personality, and other psychological and social factors all have a role to play in how each individual manages stress. We are complex creatures.

Stress precipitates physical changes in the body — heart rate and breathing increase, and muscles tense. Short-term stress is usually understood as a good thing. It helps prepare us for making a speech, applying for a job, training for a sporting event, and fleeing when we sense danger. Long-term stress is another matter. When the stress response becomes chronic, research shows it can contribute to physical and mental illness through effects on the heart, immune and metabolic functions, and hormones acting on the brain.

Workplace Stress, OSHA, and the Employer

OSHA recognizes that while many things produce stress, work is often one of them. Workplace stress, OSHA explains, when coupled with poor mental health, negatively impacts a worker’s physical health and affects job performance and productivity.

According to research by the American Institute for Stress[7], cited by OSHA in its Workplace Stress bulletin[8], more than 80 percent of US workers reported experiencing workplace stress in 2021, and more than 50 percent believe their work-related stress impacts their life at home.

Other recent research about stress that’s received some media attention is a survey and report by 1Password[9] — a Toronto-based cybersecurity and privacy company. The research explores employees’ sentiments and behaviors around cybersecurity amidst the domestic and global crises of the past few years. The findings reveal[10] that sustained burnout, now paired with high levels of distraction, has critical implications for workplace security.

OSHA believes workplace stress has become a national problem and invites employers to be part of the solution. Citing research by the American Psychological Association, OSHA wants employers to know that more than 85 percent of employees surveyed in 2021 said: “actions from their employer would help their mental health.” The agency seeks to help employers understand how to implement a workplace culture that “builds coping and resiliency supports and ensures that people who need help know where to turn.”

What is the Employer’s Responsibility Now?

In the Department of Labor’s memo[11] about the employer’s responsibility to provide reasonable accommodation for employees living with mental health conditions, the case-by-case nature of this accommodation is emphasized.

Not all employees with mental health conditions need accommodations to perform their jobs. For those who do, it is essential to remember that developing and implementing accommodations is individualized and should begin with input from the employee. Accommodations vary, just as people’s strengths, work environments, and job duties vary.

There is no requirement for most private employers to have a drug-free workplace. The exceptions to this are federal contractors and grantees [12]and safety and security-sensitive industries and positions[13]. Two broad categories of legislation embrace federal statutes on drug-free workplace policies — one is the Drug-free Workplace Act of 1988[14]. The other is a group of laws designed to protect the fundamental civil rights of American workers: The Americans with Disabilities Act [15](ADA) of 1990, the Civil Rights Act[16] of 1964, the Family and Medical Leave Act[17] (FMLA) of 1993, and the National Labor Relations Act[18] (NRLA) of 1935. These laws provide protections for certain types of employees and set limits on the employer’s right to investigate — and establish consequences for — an employee’s drug use.

What can Employers do to Help?

The new OSHA bulletin provides links to a range of resources designed to help educate managers and workers, reduce stigma, and facilitate the integration of behavioral health concepts into the employer’s overall safety program. If you have questions or concerns about how stress and behavioral health issues may affect workforce productivity and security risk in your business, feel free to contact Orr & Reno for assistance.

About the Author: James Laboe[19]


  1. Occupational Safety and Health Administration :
  2. bulletin:
  3. Mental Health America :
  4. report:
  5. National Survey on Drug Use and Health:
  6. American Psychological Association :
  7. American Institute for Stress:
  8. Workplace Stress bulletin:
  9. 1Password:
  10. findings reveal:
  11. memo:
  12. federal contractors and grantees :
  13. safety and security-sensitive industries and positions:
  14. Drug-free Workplace Act of 1988:
  15. The Americans with Disabilities Act :
  16. Civil Rights Act:
  17. Family and Medical Leave Act:
  18. National Labor Relations Act:
  19. James Laboe:
  20. [Image]:

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