Does Your Organization Prioritize the Mental Health of Employees?

exhausted young mom at home with young children

Every May is designated as Mental Health Awareness Month. In the 2021 WTW Benefits Trend Survey, 86% of employers in North America cited stress, burnout, and mental health issues as their top workforce challenges. Mental wellness is not just a conversation piece for a month, rather it is a business challenge that demands focus from employers all year long.

Data is very telling. Has your employee assistance program (EAP) utilization increased significantly over the last two years? If it has not, then most likely your employees are not aware that they can access the program, likely at no cost to them, when dealing with life's struggles, or even access services beyond traditional counseling for mental health and/or substance use (MH/SU) illnesses. Some individuals may be hesitant to use the EAP benefit because they do not trust in its confidentiality, or they may feel shame.

What does this mean for employers, and potential prevalence in their workforce and families?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness, one in 20 experience serious mental illness, and 17% of youth aged 6 to 17 experience a mental health condition.

Employers need their people to feel safe and be healthy to work, to innovate, to collaborate, to help drive the organization's success. This extends beyond work environment safety. Mental illness, like cancer, does not discriminate. We often speak openly about serious illnesses like cancer, yet mental illness often goes silent. Many employers have started to think more on how to help their employees holistically, as mental wellness is just as important as physical health. The pandemic has wreaked havoc across millions of households and workplaces, and the ripple effect will be felt for decades.

In the WTW 2021 Benefits Trend Survey, 73% of employers globally cite stress, burnout, and mental health issues as their top workforce challenges, and that number is even greater in North America – 86%. Earlier this month, the National Safety Council and National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago released new research stating that for each employee experiencing mental health issues, employers spend more than $15,000 on average annually for health care services, workdays lost and turnover. Their research indicates that employers that offer mental wellness services for employees see a return of four dollars for every dollar invested in mental health treatment.

Employers should think of the wellbeing of employees holistically and explore what they can do to help employees feel safe by eliminating the stigma often associated with these silent illnesses, and provide valuable, accessible benefits. Often, employees don't know where to call or whom to see when they or a family member is feeling depressed, anxious, hopeless, or dealing with an addiction. As with other illnesses, when the employee or their family member does not seek care in a timely manner, the cost to employers can be exponential if inpatient care becomes necessary.

When reviewing health and prescription costs with your claims administrator and/or broker, take a deep dive into your MH/SU claims to understand if there are certain trends where you can take action (e.g. higher prevalence in a business unit or work location, utilization of non-network facilities, gaps in care, medication adherence, etc.).

According to SHRM Mental Health in America, A 2022 Workplace Report, 78% of organizations currently offer workplace mental wellness resources or plan to offer such resources in the next year, while 51% of U.S. workers state that gaining access to more robust workplace resources would help improve their mental health.

How to prioritize mental health in the workplace:

  • Consider an executive sponsor and people "champions" across the organization. Executive, manager, or staff testimonials are powerful statements when someone is willing to speak up about their journey.
  • Initiate a company-wide campaign to destigmatize mental illness, nourish a culture of empathy and deliver focused training at all levels, making it mandatory for people managers.
  • Partner with your service providers (health plan, EAP, behavioral health, etc.) to increase awareness and provide broader access to mental health professionals, inclusive of virtual mental health counseling.
  • Educate the workforce on programs available through their benefits and community resources (e.g., local hospitals often offer free support programs).
  • Leverage your vendor ecosystem to cross-refer into the services you make available when there is an employee touchpoint (e.g., disability vendor can refer to EAP).
  • Provide workplace mental health education programs/presentations and incorporate them into your wellness program.
  • Evaluate whether an on-site counselor dedicated to your workforce, often staffed by your EAP, makes financial sense for your organization.
  • Consider other programs to help alleviate financial concerns as money worries often lead to stress and anxiety.

The ADP Research Institute® recently released People at Work 2022: A Global Workforce View and found that 53% of employees believe their work is suffering because of poor mental health. The study found that employers who are being proactive with mental health initiatives are doing the following, among other efforts:

  • 33% are having more frequent check-ins and increased communication with employees
  • 31% are allowing employees to have "wellbeing days"
  • 30% are providing stress management breaks such as access to a zen room, wellbeing activities, meditation classes
  • 30% are providing additional breaks in the day
  • 22% are granting the right to disconnect from messages after working hours

Making the investment in a culture that prioritizes mental wellness can have positive results for your organization. When you provide employees with the resources to help them manage the issues of everyday life and create an environment that is supportive and inclusive, employees can be more productive and lead a healthier life both on and off work. In the SHRM report, 86% of HR professionals cited that offering mental health resources can increase employee retention and 72% believe that offering such resources attracts new talent.

In addition to SHRM, these excellent resources are available to help support employers: National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), National Institute of Mental Health, and Center for Workplace Mental Health.

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