Employers zeroing in on mental health benefits

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WASHINGTON — Mental health conditions impact one in five people in the workforce, which is why well-being programs should be top of mind for employers looking to improve access to care and break down the stigma surrounding behavioral health problems.

“We have a long way to go to ensure we do a better job with individuals that live with a mental health condition,” said Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

The economic impact of depression comes at a price tag of about $210 billion and a little under half of the cost is related to lost productivity in the workplace, Gruttadaro said Monday, speaking at the Disability Management Employer Coalition’s annual conference.

“Mental health remains a taboo topic,” she added. “People aren’t comfortable talking about it, but we’re making progress. Early intervention leads to the best results.”

There are three key areas where employers can hone their focus when developing behavioral health benefits: raising awareness and ending stigma, improving climate and culture, and improving access to care.

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It's important to know where your company stands regarding mental health benefits, employee awareness and access, she noted. “One thing that is important, whatever you design, it should fit the culture of your organization. What American Express would do could be quite different than what a utility company might do.”

Gruttadaro said many employers are raising awareness through improved educational programs. For example, smaller companies with fewer resources could create a one-page handout with information on the prevalence of mental health issues and the importance of an EAP, as well as details on where employees can locate help, she said.

“The key is to make mental health more visible,” she added.

Sustained visibility of mental health at an organization, from the top down, is key to improving the culture and climate.

“The top is where the culture starts,” she said. Instead, it is an ongoing, trickle down effect and should be more than checking off a box.

Data is also important. As employers work to improve culture, they should be collecting continuous data. “You really want to know that what you’re doing is making a difference,” she said.

Also see: Employers don’t feel equipped to support mental health conditions

Access to care is an additional barrier employers must work to overcome. Employers can use data to determine the number of workers who are missing out on mental healthcare. For example, 20% of people are impacted by mental health, and if claims numbers are way below that, something needs to be done.

“What I’m learning, is you can raise awareness and bring that baseline of understanding up on mental health, and you can do great work on your culture to make employees feel comfortable,” Gruttadaro said. “But if people can’t get access to good, quality and timely care, you sort of undermine all that other work you’ve done.”

EAPs are another tool employers can use to address behavioral health issues but utilization is often low, she added. To mitigate this, companies should consider broadening their EAP services to tackle major areas of stress for workers, including financial wellness, caregiving and legal issues.

This gives backdoor access to the EAP, which can recognize that people struggling with financial or legal issues and may have enough strain that they also experience mental health issues, she said.

“Employers we talk with are concerned with low EAP use,” she said. “What we hear often is some of the same issues around mental health conditions, ‘I don’t want my employer to know,’ or ‘I don’t trust this is confidential.’”

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