11/07/2013 02:25 pm ET

How Work Can Improve Mental Health Among the Aging

Last month celebrated Mental Illness Awareness, but you wouldn't be at fault for not noticing. The event, meant to draw attention to major depression and other mental disorders, went by with barely a blip on the radar. The messy roll-out of the Affordable Care Act -- which, ironically, promotes mental health by mandating it as an "essential benefit" -- hogged the headlines and crowded out the event.

This is unfortunate. Mental illness -- especially depression -- should be atop the health priority hierarchy, as it can derail overall wellness and threaten healthy and active aging. If the aging population is going to become a source of social prosperity and economic growth, then mental illness must be taken more seriously. The social, health, and economic consequences of disregarding depression among the aging are vast.

What's worse is that this oversight occurs as global organizations recognize the connections between healthy aging and economic growth. The world's most influential institutions -- from the United Nations and the World Health Organization to APEC and the OECD - have each acknowledged the economic significance of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and Alzheimer's. This is monumental, but missing depression and mental illness is regrettable. Depression may be more subtle and less recognizable than cancer and other diseases, but its consequences are equally serious.

Indeed, while depression is often seen to be on the periphery of essential health services, it is in fact at the core of healthy and active aging. Research shows that the health consequences of depression reach far beyond the stereotypes of "being sad." In older populations, depression stalls rates of recovery from other diseases, thus creating a sap on recovery and a barrier against engaging in other healthy behaviors. Depression is, so to speak, a double-edge sword.

And yet, given the brutal fiscal and political environment surrounding the U.S.'s healthcare system -- and the sweep of austerity buckling nations across the globe -- it is reasonable to wonder the extent to which governments can develop better, more comprehensive treatment for mental illness.

As such, the private sector has a real chance to lead and make a difference.

Given what we know about depression, mental illness, and the potential economic vitality of a healthy, active aging population, there is one solution that can "move the needle": the age-friendly workplace. If workplaces can be designed to promote mental wellness, the improvement of overall health will follow. It is an opportunity, indeed, for the private sector to make modest, high-impact changes that will drive healthy aging without requiring access to well-guarded federal coffers.

Broadly speaking, there are two categories that can guide employers to create age-friendly workplaces.

Physical changes: Ergonomics is the trend de jure for accommodating aging workers. For good reason, adapting workspaces to fit the human body has become "step one" in making the workplace age-friendly. Ergonomics is, however, only part of the equation. Equally critical is for workplaces to promote physical activity among aging adults. Even modest increases in exercise have disproportionately positive effects on mental health, and simple programs and incentives can increase the physical activity of older adults. Critically, this physical activity will improve mental health and resonate throughout the body, increasing overall wellbeing.

Policy changes
: Beyond ergonomics and physical exercise, organizations can also create age-friendly workplaces by offering programs that accommodate the needs and desires of aging workers. Programs that enable employees of all ages to pursue less linear careers  ones in which they can move laterally from one capacity to another -- will facilitate new approaches to building careers that last five and six decades. Also critical are programs that promote ongoing education, training, and financial planning, as well as sabbaticals and "time off" to pursue individual interests.

Additionally, the ideal age-friendly workplace offers flexibility. Many aging workers must provide care for loved ones who suffer from chronic disease. For employees who act as caregivers, they need the flexibility to manage doctor's visits, run household errands, and manage medical issues. It is unfortunate that many employees face the ultimatum of either working or caregiving.

To become age-friendly, organizations should undergo a comprehensive "age audit" to assess their age-friendliness. This diagnostic would assess everything from the shape of a keyboard to the size of a continuing education grant. At its foundation, though, an age-friendly audit would assess how mental health is being promoted among aging workers. Each criterion -- from the small ergonomic adaptations to the policies that engage older workers -- focuses on creating a healthy workforce that drives productivity and engagement.

Though Mental Illness Awareness Week was drowned out by the noise of Obamacare, there is still immense opportunity to bring attention to mental wellness, especially among the aging population. Mental health is one of the most critical -- and underappreciated -- elements of wellbeing, especially among the aging, and it is becoming clear that national governments cannot drive this progress alone. This time next year, wouldn't it be nice to reflect on how the age-friendly workplace has improved mental health -- and thus overall wellness -- among the world's fastest growing demographic segment?