Uncertainty complicates addressing mental health issues

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Employers are unsure how to help their employees with mental health issues, particularly because they are unsure of the number of workers who are affected, new research indicates.

In the “Mental Health and Substance Abuse Benefits” survey of 247 U.S. employers conducted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, about 158 employers (64%) said that they thought that less than 30% of their workforce is affected by mental health or substance abuse issues.

About one quarter of employers did not guess and said they were unsure if their employees were affected by these issues at all.

Stigma plays a major role in the discussion of behavioral health problems, which include mental health and substance abuse issues, says Julie Stich, associate vice president of content at the IFEBP, an association serving the employee benefits and compensation industry.

See also: Employers need to remove mental illness stigma from the workplace

“Addiction is not an easy problem for employers to tackle,” says Stich. “Employees who are struggling with substance abuse issues are often doing so in secret. They may fear that admitting a problem will cost them their job.”

Utilizing the EAP

Despite this uncertainty and, therefore, a lack of conversation around the topic, employers are relying on benefit options they already offer, particularly the employee assistance program.

More than nine out of 10 employers (91%) offer an employee assistance program, which can help employees address these behavioral health problems, according to the survey.

Within their EAP, 91% of companies offered assessment or counseling, 87% offered mental health assistance or counseling, 79% offered access to a crisis hotline and 62% offered legal assistance.

While an employee might suffer from one or more behavioral health conditions, not all are covered under an EAP.

Employers are likely to cover conditions such as depression (88%), alcohol addiction (86%) and such anxiety disorders as panic disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder (82%), according to the survey.

Despite the coverage, employees are largely unaware of the services they have at their disposal, says Mim Senft, president and CEO at Motivity Partnerships Inc., a company that helps employers develop wellness strategies. The number of employees using an employee assistance program make up between 1% and 6% of the workforce, according to the study.

“Creating a better understanding and connection to the company’s EAP, as well as training the workforce to help identify at-risk individuals, is key to getting to employees before they become addicted,” says Senft. “If employers are serious about solving this issue, they need a strategy and proven solutions.”

Employers offer other options

Without having a conversation with employees about their behavioral health concerns, employers might not be offering their population the right services.

Some employers offer wellness programs with a mental health or substance abuse component (38%) or a stress-management program (23%), according to the survey.

Similarly, the treatments for mental illnesses through these programs often include outpatient in-person treatment sessions with a medical professional or therapist (84%), prescription drug therapies (76%) and inpatient hospital or clinic treatment (69%), according to the survey.

Stich says employers often want to help their employees but aren’t sure how.

“I think they do care and they are concerned; they haven’t figured out a good way to know,” she says. “Or nobody is talking about it, so they don’t think it’s a pervasive issue.”

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Mental health Mental health benefits Health insurance Healthcare plans Healthcare benefits Employee communications Employee engagement Voluntary benefits