10 ways employers can support behavioral health


Not all employees are embracing healthy habits to cope with quarantine — many are turning to destructive behaviors, and it’s hurting their employers.

Working Americans are increasingly suffering from behavioral health issues during the pandemic, including mental health issues and substance abuse. This can have a disastrous impact on productivity, said Dan Jolivet, a workplace consultant at financial services company The Standard, during a virtual session of the Disability Management Employer Coalition annual conference.

“A third of employees reported they were not productive for half the workweek because of their mental health issues — and this was before the pandemic,” Jolivet said. “It’s becoming much worse as more people are turning to substance abuse to cope.”

Eighty percent of employees reported feeling moderately or highly distressed due to the pandemic, according to a survey by The Standard. One out of five of these respondents reported turning to prescription drugs to cope with the stress, while one out of seven used illicit drugs. But the most common substance abuse disorder in the U.S. continues to be alcohol abuse, Jolivet said. In April, online alcohol sales skyrocketed by 500% compared to last year, according to the American Addiction Centers. One-third of U.S. workers even admitted to drinking while working from home.

“The pandemic has really exasperated these issues, and employers need to be part of the solution,” Jolivet said. “We spend such a significant amount of time at work that [employers] have the opportunity to make a significant impact. And from a business standpoint, it makes sense for them to address productivity loss.”

Jolivet shared 10 strategies employers can adopt to help their workforce overcome behavioral health issues so they can bring their best selves to work.

Incorporate behavioral health into company mission and values
“In a survey by The Standard, 41% of employees said they want their employer to proactively address mental health, but this means so much more than adopting benefits,” Jolivet said. “Employers need to create a culture where employees feel safe and supported enough to talk about these issues like they’re any other medical condition — because they are.”
Design benefit offerings to include employee input
“How do you know what your employees really need, unless you ask,” he says.

Jolivet recommends surveying your employees about the services they’d like to see in their benefits package. Employers can use this data to help them curate other benefits, in addition to mental health.
Make behavioral health benefits visible and accessible, especially EAPs
“I always joke there’s never a better place to hide something than on the employee intranet,” Jolivet said. “It doesn’t matter how great your programs are if employees can’t find them.”

The Standard data shows only 5.5% of employees use their EAP, and 4% of them access it for substance abuse issues. Jolivet believes utilization numbers will improve if employers make more of an effort to promote their EAPs.
Offer programs and incentives to encourage employee participation
“This is a great way to build a culture that prioritizes mental health,” Jolivet said. “Help normalize participation in these programs by making them fun.”

Jolivet recommends offering prizes and doing company-wide mental health challenges. Employees can receive gift cards or other incentives for utilizing digital wellness programs.
Address stigma and implement an anti-stigma campaign
“Sixty-four percent of workers hide their mental health conditions from employers because they are often intimidated to admit they’re struggling with mental health or substance abuse,” Jolivet said. “But they’re completely treatable medical conditions. There’s plenty of digital educational tools out there to help.”

Jolivet recommends consulting mental health professionals and benefit brokers for program suggestions.
Equip leaders with behavioral health training and resources
“Managers need to be the type of people employees feel comfortable going to if they’re struggling,” Jolivet said. “They also need to be able to guide these employees to the appropriate resources for treatment.”
Implement formal “stay at work” and “return to work” programs
“Employers need to have plans in place to help employees balance treatment program participation with work, or to ease the transition back into work,” he said.

The Standard data shows “stay at work” and “return to work” programs have employee retention rates of 88% and 61%, respectively.
Communicate what accommodations are available and who to contact
“The pandemic has many of us working remotely already, so consider flexible scheduling and reduced hours,” Jolivet said. “Make sure employees know exactly who to talk to about these options to prevent misunderstandings.”
Consider creative accommodations
“What you’re doing isn’t working? Try something else,” he says. “If you go out of your way to show employees you care about their treatment and work, they’ll be more productive.”
Involve and engage experts
“Less than one third of HR professionals feel confident tackling behavioral health issues,” Jolivet said. “Talk to mental health and substance abuse professionals about what programs and practices are the most effective to create the best programs for your workforce.”