With mental illness and substance abuse costing employers an estimated $100 billion annually in indirect costs alone, benefit decision-makers are seeing value in promoting employee assistance programs as a means to improve their workforce’s mental well-being.

Thanks to an extension pushed forward by the Affordable Care Act, which helped to bridge the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, treatment of mental and or substance abuse disorders now fall under essential health benefits. And this ACA distinction comes at an important time, as nearly one in five adult Americans experienced mental illness last year, according to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

“The EAP serves as the real foundation for mental wellness or mental well-being,” says Kathleen Greer, founder and chairman, KGA, Inc., an HR services firm.

 See also: EAPs take on expanded role with ACA

Speaking at a session hosted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans and the New England Employee Benefits Council, Greer cited recent data that the top reasons employees reach out to an EAP are legal, emotional/stress, couple/marital, family and alcohol/drug-related issues. But Greer noted that most people do not call with just one issue, “they call with several issues that get all blended together,” she says.

“EAP is the best mental health program that exists,” Greer adds, while noting that employees need access to the right counselor at the right time.

See also: Managers lack awareness, tools to deal with depression in the workplace

Meanwhile, a recent study from Ipsos Healthcare, the Impact of Depression at Work Audit, finds that 36% of managers say they have no formal support or resource in place to handle an employee with depression. Additionally, the study found that an employee with depression would take an average of nine days leave due to effects from the illness.

The Employers Health Coalition notes that there is an estimated $100 billion spent annually on depression by U.S. employers, including $44 billion a year in lost productivity.

According to Dr. Debra Lerner, Tufts University professor of medicine and psychiatry, employers can be optimistic about available mental health interventions that use EAP services, despite the associated productivity costs. Tufts’ Be Well at Work program has instituted a successful “employee-centered” care effort that aims to restore an employee’s ability to function and be productive after bouts of depression.

Be Well at Work is a Web-based, privacy-protected intervention program that works with specially-trained counselors with EAP experience, collaborating side-by-side with “ongoing supervision” from a team of psychiatry, clinical psychology and workplace health experts. It uses analytical and reporting tools to establish an electronic medical record that can track improvements.

“This is an extension [of the EAP]. It’s pushing the EAP in a new direction to highly intensive care for depression,” Lerner says.

Lerner, also director of program on health, work and productivity at Tufts Medical Center, explains that the main concern for most employers will be the associated costs of depression. “It’s the indirect cost side that can be the major component of expense that employers shoulder when it comes to depression,” she says.

See also3 ways to counsel employers through an employee's depression-related return to work

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