Mental health has declined through the pandemic; three times as many Americans report major symptoms of anxiety or depression compared to 2019. To address these concerns, two out of three U.S. employers (67%) plan to make employee mental health and emotional wellbeing programs and solutions one of their top three health priorities over the next three years. Mental health access and care challenges are likely to endure over the next several years, but employers can play a leading role in supporting the psychological wellbeing of their employees and their families.
According to the CDC, rates of depression and anxiety are going up, while mental health provider shortages are likely to worsen. Access to mental health care is especially challenging for children and those who live in rural areas.
Studies show that many people with mental health conditions require long-term management. For others, intermittent episodes may be short-lived but cause significant work/life disruptions. The impacts of COVID on adult and child mental health will have long-term repercussions. Caring for employee mental health requires a commitment and investment; yet not addressing employee mental health has even more costly financial implications for employers.
Employer Considerations for Mental Health
Many employers continue to look for opportunities to address mental health, and the imperative to address these issues has increased since the onset of the pandemic. The employee mental health journey is complicated, personal and unique. Compounding the challenge, the mental health system functions poorly for many with mental health needs, increasing the importance of employers’ role in evaluating and improving the ecosystem of care for an employee, both inside and outside the organization.
Telehealth and Tele-Behavioral Health
Eight out of ten employers said that their top approach to addressing employee mental health issues was expanding telehealth and tele-behavioral health. Virtual care offers ease of scheduling, flexibility, and decreases travel burden or safety concerns during flu season or COVID waves. Virtual care can also enable better matching of patients to culturally competent providers.
Employers will also enhance traditional employee assistance programs (EAP) over the coming three years, potentially through navigation support, increased visits, incorporation of technology or new clinical care interventions.
Beyond vendor solutions, employers are looking more closely at their training and mental health awareness programs. A mental health strategy offers the opportunity to look at opportunities across the organization and within business areas. Thirty percent of employers are planning to focus on manager training, including mental health awareness, identification and intervention. This training equips managers to provide effective support to employees and is critical to understanding how to respond, when to act, what not to say and what to do.
Employee Resource Groups
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can help employers understand experiences and promote employee social connections. Nearly 40% of employers are partnering with ERGs to address population-specific mental health issues. ERG interests, such as those of mental health, diversity, equity and inclusion, differently abled and neurodiversity, often overlap. Companies can understand ERG priorities and align new solutions or program changes to provide positive impacts across multiple peer groups.
Flexibility and time off for mental health care continue to top the list of employee requests related to mental health. The number of employers that intend to offer designated mental health days could triple from 9% currently to 30% in the next two years.
Further Employer Actions
Employers are highly focused on supporting the mental health of their employees, especially as they look to retain and engage talent. Employers can:
- Look at the data: Review relevant internal population demographics and vendor utilization data to identify specific areas to target for mental health support.
- Ask employees: Use pulse surveys or focus groups to identify gaps in access to care and to determine which mental health services and programs most resonate with employees.
- Identify easy wins: Deploy communication tools to promote mental health care. May and September offer opportunities to align to mental health awareness weeks and months and show corporate commitment through sponsorship of mental health community events.
- Evaluate strategic mental health partners: Review mental health vendors that can augment or enhance current services.
- Educate and train: Support employees and leaders in understanding the basic signs and symptoms of mental health, empower leaders and colleagues with clear guidelines on how to help and reinforce the importance of mental health care regularly.
Employee mental health is complicated, and there is no single solution. The mental health system is under-resourced despite the increasing need for care. By taking a multifaceted approach to their employees’ mental health, employers have the opportunity to help their companies and their employees. Employee mental health care is a workforce investment that pays off through a healthier, more engaged and productive workforce.
Erin Terkoski Young is a Senior Director in Health, Equity and Wellbeing at WTW. She is a clinical social worker and strives to bring mental health awareness into the workplace.
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