BY RICK PORTERFIELD
Companies large and small have focused on employee wellness for years. Today, according to recent research by Guardian Life, 79% of organizations say improving the health and wellness of their employees is extremely or very important. Many employees, however, have a need for mental healthcare that is largely unmet, and companies can play a vital role in helping them get the support they urgently seek.
Unless otherwise noted, readers should know that all data provided in this article is from Guardian Life’s 10th Annual Guardian Workplace Benefits Study Mind, Body, and Wallet, 2021.
Each year, one in five adults in the U.S. are affected by a mental health condition; sadly, more than half of them receive no treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Additionally, there has been a decline in employee self-reported emotional health of 12% in the last five years, signing a profound shift. What’s more, as a percent of total disability claims, mental health-related claims have doubled in the past decade from 7% to 14%.
It’s become clear that support for employee emotional health is no longer a “nice to have” benefit. It is becoming a must-have for employees’ overall well-being. Just ask employees. We surveyed employees as part of our recent workplace benefits study and found that almost half of working Americans believe their employer isn’t doing enough to address concerns about workforce mental health.
Supporting emotional well-being also should be important to companies themselves: Three of four employees we surveyed cited stress and burnout as their biggest mental health challenges. Such stress can impact company performance as well as employee retention.
COVID-19 has brought more challenges, negatively affecting 28% of employees’ emotional health and work/life balance. The blurred lines between work and home life, with the pressure to be “on,” even outside traditional working hours, contributes to workers’ burnout.
Our survey also found that younger workers are faring worse than their older colleagues. While 53% of baby boomers and 41% of Gen X and millennials report their mental health is very good or excellent, roughly half (52%) of Gen Z workers report that they are extremely or very concerned about their mental health.
Men and women also have varying perceptions about their emotional health. Forty-eight percent of men report their mental health is excellent or very good compared to 37% of women. In the wake of the recent exodus of millions of women from the workforce, companies should take notice and look for ways to help caregivers women and men balance their responsibilities at home and work.
CURRENT CHALLENGES AND THE NEED TO OVERCOME THEM
Many employers offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). But, in general, EAPs were designed to react to short-term, critical issues, and utilization rates remain low, according to SAGE Journals. One study by Mental Health America found that less than 4% of employees utilize their organization’s EAP.
Sadly, the stigma still associated with mental illness could be a reason why. We’ve come a long way in understanding the importance of mental health care, but 47% of people still believe going to therapy is a sign of weakness. And 30% of employers believe that there’s still a stigma associated with EAPs.
Another reason for low utilization of EAP programs is lack of communication. A third of employees say they do not know enough about the EAP program available to them. More broadly, less than a third (28%) of employees strongly agree that their employer does a good job of educating them about available benefits and how to use them.
Clearly there are opportunities for improvement in engaging employees in benefit conversations. The open enrollment period for employee benefits is the traditional time for such communications, but it is also when employees may be overwhelmed by the process.
Ongoing education should continue throughout the calendar year to ensure that employees take full advantage of their benefits. Empathetic and enlightening communications also can help remove the stigma around mental health care that, sadly, still exists.
REMOVAL OF BARRIERS TO CARE
Also critical to employee mental health is eliminating barriers to care. These barriers include the time it takes to get an appointment with a qualified therapist or counselor, which can be significant.
Cost is also often a barrier as well. No- or low-cost options, including telehealth appointments and research-backed exercises and tools, make care more accessible.
THE OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE
There has never been a better time for innovative approaches by employers. Our research affirmed that companies that have increased their investment in mental health benefits have seen improvements in both retention and productivity recovered per engaged employee per week. Moreover, according to the World Health Organization, “Mental Health in the Workplace” study, for every dollar invested in scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of $4 from improved health and productivity.
Importantly, supporting employee emotional health is an opportunity for companies to live up to their oft cited maxim that “people are their greatest asset.” By proactively supporting employee emotional well-being, employers can do more than talk the talk. They can tangibly demonstrate concern and support.
The good news is that many companies are increasing their investment in the emotional health of their workforces. In 2021, employers put more monetary resources than ever to support mental health services.
Last year, the perceived value of mental and emotional health resources more than doubled to 35% from 2016, when only 15% of employers surveyed agreed that expanding the use of mental and emotional health resources (including EAPs) was extremely important.
THE WAY FORWARD
Looking ahead, companies can better support emotional wellness for employees by focusing on:
- Mental health resources beyond Employee Assistance Programs to remove barriers to care
- Tailored employee communications through diverse channels to ensure every cohort in the organization feels included, knows how to access care, and feels comfortable and secure when using the benefits
- Simplified processes, from enrollment to filing claims to renewals, that make it easy to access the benefits provided
Simply put, given the high incidence of mental health conditions affecting workers, it is time to recognize that status quo benefits and communication about them have not sufficiently met employees’ needs. Employers have a crucial role to play in reversing the decline in employee self-reported emotional health, and the time for action is now.
RICK PORTERFIELD is regional director, Northern California & Pacific Northwest, for The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America,® which is focused on inspiring well-being.