It’s time to remove the barriers, stigma around mental healthcare

WASHINGTON – Mental health is costing employers big bucks and it may be because workers aren’t getting the treatment they need.

Low rates of engagement in treatment are costing employers an estimated $226 billion annually, said Pamela Greenberg, president and CEO of the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness.

“The reason for these grim statistics is stigma,” Greenberg said, speaking at the World Health Care Congress on Tuesday. “People are afraid to say they have a behavioral health disorder and are scared to get treatment.”

Only one in eight employers have data that directly connects mental health with overall health and performance, according to a recent survey from the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions. But respondents reported that the emotional well-being of workers impacts absenteeism (63%), work performance (73%) and conflicts at work (42%).

Mental health has been top of mind for employers for four to five years, said Diana Han, chief medical officer at General Electric. “The journey for us started with anecdotal evidence from our workforce that we had significant challenges.”

To address this issue, General Electric took steps to communicate the policies and procedures that govern how they approached employment and employment protection. The company wanted their employees to know there was no difference between someone seeking help because they’re addicted to opioids or because they have cancer, she added of their efforts to reduce stigma around mental health.

Mental Health 3.18.19.png

Han added that employees engaging in mental health programs are returning to work at a faster rate than unengaged workers. “Days away from work has really been a big win for employees and our business,” she said.

Employers need to get full support from their C-level leaders, added Don Mordecai, national leader for mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente.

“Having that kind of C-suite level support is important because you need to create a culture of safety,” he added. “Just going up to people saying, ‘This is ok’ is not going to make them feel safe in our stigmatized society.”

Mordecai said there are good tools available for employers already. For example, he pointed to a report from the World Economic Forum on mental health as a potential resource for employers to review. Workplace culture needs to be open to talking about mental health, he added.

“Know your culture and where you’re at and make sure you start measuring it,” said Kathleen Herath, associate vice president for well-being and safety at Nationwide. “Even if you don’t know what top-of-the-house support you have, once you start measuring things … that can win them over.”

The insurer also is seeing success in their mental health programs. While Nationwide has had wellness programs since 1988, but really started to invest in these offerings in 2005 by adding onsite clinics and an EAP program, and have expanded from there.

“If you are in the wellness space, don’t shy away from all aspects of brain health,” said Herath. “If you had a broken bone, you’d seek help. Addiction is not a character flaw.”

Nationwide looked at employees with an active disease diagnosis who participated in mental health programs and compared them to healthy employees who didn’t participate, she said. The employer found that healthy employees who didn’t participate in behavioral health programs had a 6% higher spend than those with active diseases in programs who did participate.

“We know this works over time,” she said.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.