In episode 4 of the Bright Side of Benefits, host Becky Seefeldt discusses mental health & the workplace with new co-host Kristen Hughes.
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TRANSCRIPT – EPISODE 04: Mental Health & the Workplace
Hi, I’m Becky Seefeldt here with another episode of the Bright Side of Benefits. This is a series for benefits professionals and consultants where we talk about the latest news and happenings in employee benefits – all in easy-to-digest, bite-sized snippets. I’m the VP of Strategy for Benefit Resource, a third-party administrator headquartered in Rochester, NY. For over 20 years, I’ve been dedicated to the education and advancement of consumer-driven benefits.
Today, I’m here with Kristen Hughes. Kristen’s here to learn along with you about the mental health care crisis and its impact on the workforce. Kristen?
Hi Becky, thanks for having me – I’m super excited to be here for today’s episode. It wasn’t all that long ago that mental health really wasn’t talked about. The stigma around dealing with mental health has really been reduced lately. You have people like Howard Stern openly talking on his podcast about how he sees his therapist regularly and other public figures and celebrities endorsing the value of psychology and psychiatry.
You know, for me, I’ve had my own struggles with mental health. And so, this is such an exciting time on a personal level to see mental health not just being passively accepted but really being promoted and advocated for in the benefits space.
So true. But before we get started, I want to thank listener Nicolette Lily for submitting this episode’s topic. Nicolette, if you’re listening, keep an eye on your email for something special. If you have a topic of your own that you’d like us to talk about, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Bright Side of Benefits Topic”. If we choose your topic, you’ll get something special too!
Now, let’s kick things off.
Mental Health is Taking a Spot Center Stage
So much of the traditional conversations are centered around what mental health does on an individual level. But as we know, at the end of the day, individuals make up the workforce.
Just a quick google search on mental health, you’ll see over 388,000 news items come up. And this ranges from topics like COVID-19 on their impacts to mental health for kids to the overall mental-health crisis and the cost implications of mental health problems. In fact, it’s estimated that at least 1 in 5 will experience a mental illness. Although that figure is likely understated as many of the metrics go back to 2019 before we really saw the impact of the pandemic.
So Becky, like you said – at least 20% of people are affected by a mental illness, and this isn’t a new statistic. So, why is mental health getting so much attention just recently?
Over the past few years, we have really been forced to see mental health on a new surface. It was likely something that was already boiling beneath the surface for some time, but the pandemic really created situations that it made it impossible to ignore. You had:
- Feelings of isolation that drove up people’s depression rates.
- Anxiety about the pandemic and unknown. In fact, nearly half of all adults report symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
- You also saw employee burnout. This is a key issue as the lines between work and home became blurred and people felt like they always needed to be “on”. A Gallup Poll indicated that 1 in 4 full-time employees say they feel burned out very often or always. That’s a big concern.
- And you also had the issue of many people struggling to get access to mental health services.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness reported nearly 18 million people experienced delays or cancelations of their appointments in 2020.
- Mental Health Foundation reported that only 14% of families took advantage of mental health services. Roughly 52% decide to really “tough it out” on their own rather than seeking those mental health services.
That definitely makes sense for why mental health has taken a spot center stage recently. You know, so much of the traditional conversations are centered around what mental health does on an individual level. But as we know at the end of the day, individuals make up the workforce. So, what kind of an impact are we seeing on employers?
Mental Health & the Workplace
According to the Center for Disease Control, depression causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays each year. That’s a LOT of work hours. And then additionally, it cost them roughly $17 billion to $44 billion. These are not insignificant amounts.
Half of the employees with depression go untreated. Additionally, depression can impact the rate of absenteeism and can also trigger other diseases and disabilities. It can be a reason for a loss of productivity and can have overall negative impacts on the workforce.
Mental health was once viewed as a taboo thing that you were supposed to hide. But, I think the tides are starting to shift as people begin to understand that there are lots of different forms of mental illness, and we all likely struggle with our mental well-being at some times. Employers are just beginning to see that mental well-being should be on a similar footing to the physical health of their employees and viewing it as a core tenant to their overall benefits, workplace policies, and even their overall workplace culture.
Absolutely. So you know, it seems like the theme of the past few years just across the board universally has been finding ways to change and adapt and innovate quickly. Certainly, employee benefits are no exception. So, I’m curious about the ways that employers are changing their approach to mental health and mental health benefits.
Mental health was once viewed as a taboo thing that you were supposed to hide. But, I think the tides are starting to shift as people begin to understand that there are lots of different forms of mental illness, and we all likely struggle with our mental well-being at some times.
So I think there’s really four ideas or areas that employers are looking at when it comes to mental health.
1. Raising awareness for mental health resources
There’s a lot of great resources out there. Just to name a few of them:
- National Institute of Mental Health: Provides crisis support lines and access to a health care provider search
- FindTreatment.gov: Assists with identifying resources for substance abuse and mental health services
- MentalHealth.gov: Another great resource. It tries to break down the different types of challenges that people may have and tries to organize the resources and information based on different types of challenges, which may include things like anxiety disorders, mood disorders, suicidal behaviors, or post-traumatic distress disorders.
- Workplacementalhealth.org: This is really geared toward employers. It provides them with search guides, toolkits, calculator tools to help people identify potential mental health challenges, or training programs and podcasts that they can use to learn new tips and tricks when it comes to how to better address and understand mental health in the workplace.
These are all great resources for sure. I know just on my own I’ve also perused magazines like Psychology Today. And I even found one geared specifically towards those with ADHD called “Additude” A-D-D-I-T-U-D-E. I think the name is so clever! But the other ones are super, super great information there.
2. Normalizing the conversation regarding mental health
Reducing the stigma and normalizing mental health has been one of the biggest battles for those of us affected by mental illnesses. So, awareness, and having the conversations; these are really great steps to creating an open and tolerant work environment that places value on their employees’ mental well-being.
A study by Vida Health reported that 47% felt like getting mental help was a sign of weakness.
There was an article about how the things of the pandemic have created some empathy and helped people become champions for mental health awareness. I don’t know how many conversations there have been had around the world that centered around people feeling anxious about a new strain of COVID or what was coming next or feeling of loneliness and isolation as a result of social distancing. I’m sure it’s been countless situations where people have felt these. Myself, at times, felt that feeling of isolation during the pandemic as well.
These are feelings that a lot of people have had for a long time before the pandemic. But now that it’s become more widespread, a lot more people have real empathy for the situations and can see how a little feeling of isolation can build and become something more. And, they’re looking for ways to support people, even themselves, dealing with those areas of anxiety and depression.
Yeah, I know reducing the stigma and normalizing mental health has been one of the biggest battles for those of us affected by mental illnesses. So, awareness, and having the conversations; these are really great steps to creating an open and tolerant work environment that places value on their employees’ mental well-being. In addition to creating that kind of safe space, how can employers leverage either new or even existing benefits to promote their organization’s mental health?
3. Enhancing What You’re Already Doing
Some opportunities are really enhancing what they’re already doing. For example:
- Make sure your mental health resources are readily accessible, visible, and routinely communicated to employees. For example, during Open Enrollment, dedicate some time to mental health and mental well-being; don’t make it a footnote at the end of the presentation as people are walking out of the room. But, remind employees throughout the year about those resources and really make it a part of your ongoing communication strategy.
- Employers can also look at their training programs. And look for opportunities, both for general employees to empathize and to recognize signs of struggle but also coaching managers on how they might identify potential signs among their employees, and making sure those employees are aware of the resources that are available to them.
Going beyond just the communication, there’s some opportunities within the benefits offerings themselves.
One option is looking at your mental health services and asking yourselves, are they reasonable? Is it easy for employees to use those resources? A lot of mental health services have limited networks or they may have limited access in certain areas of the country. Making sure if you do have challenges with in-network, maybe you want to expand and offer reimbursements out-of-network at the same rate. Or, augmenting your programs with some other options.
Employers are really looking to go beyond a traditional Employee Assistance Program and expand those resources. Some of the things we’ve seen is Mental Health Apps and access to online counseling services. Some options that are out there:
- BetterHelp.com and TalkSpace – Both great options for affordable, professional therapy that can help support mental health needs of employees. They deliver that through text options, chat options, and video options. It really takes the location constraints that people might have had, or even during the pandemic where people didn’t necessarily want to go out and expose themselves. It gives them and everyone ready access to professional therapy resources.
- MoodFit and MoodMission– These apps are designed to track mood and then provide recommendations or coping skills to employees to help address any negative emotions they may have.
- Calm – Geared more towards overall well-being and anxiety management through individual exercises and breathing opportunities.
- Happify – It brings gamification to stress management, which is a really neat concept.
I might have to try Happify; gamifying stress management really appeals to my competitive side. You know, I’ve also seen Headspace pop up a lot too. I know they have an app and a standalone website, but I did their guided run on the Nike Run Club app and they have a 8-part series on Netflix with some really gorgeous animations. It seems like they’re doing some pretty creative things to keep mental health accessible and popping up on the platforms people are using.
There are definitely a lot of resources out there. And I think the tip for employers is start somewhere. These are just a few suggestions, but there are going to be a lot of options out there. Start with something, then learn what people like and what they’re using. And you can always build or change your programs as you go forward. But I think the biggest mistake is to do nothing.
4. Investing in prevention measures
Our last area of recommendation for employers is around investing in some prevention measures. So this is a little bit more on the side of your policy or your approach to your workplace culture. This can include things like encouraging employees to make time to unwind and making sure they know that it’s okay to take mental health days. Just as they would with a paid-time-off for their physical health, their mental health is equally important. Also, you may do things like no meeting days or avoiding videos. Because Zoom Fatigue is a real thing.
Finally, there’s an idea of a specialty benefit or a Specialty Account. And these can be done in a couple of different ways. At Benefit Resource, we offer some flexibility for employers to really design this based on what their goals are. Some will look more toward a traditional wellness account and they’ll reimburse specific expenses that relate to the wellness of the individual. But other employers are really going a little more aggressive with what we coin are a “happiness account” and looking at it from the perspective of, “what are things that contribute to the overall wellness or happiness of the employee?” and being able to really expand that definition beyond just gym reimbursements and things like that. But if you get your happiness from dancing or from a golf event or things like that. Being able to really align those benefits with what’s important to employees.
…Other employers are really going a little more aggressive with what we coin are a “happiness account” and looking at it from the perspective of, “what are things that contribute to the overall wellness or happiness of the employee?” and being able to really expand that definition beyond just gym reimbursements and things like that.
I get my happiness from chocolate cake…so is there a Specialty Account that will allow me to use it for chocolate cake?
That is…uh, a possibility, we’ll say.
Excellent. Wonderful. I’m in. Sign me up.
Legislative Considerations Affecting Mental Health
Well, from what I’ve learned so far during my time in this industry, is that when it comes to employee benefits, there are usually a lot of legislative and regulatory pieces that need to be considered. Are there any legislative or regulatory considerations affecting mental health benefits?
Definitely. In January, US Department of Labor, Health and Human Services and Treasury issued a report regarding the enforcement of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. The act is not new, but the focus on enforcement is. The act is intended to ensure that the financial requirements and treatment limitations of mental health are not more restrictive than other medical and surgical benefits.
To break that down into more practical terms. On the financial side, it might take the form of reimbursement rates. If medical/surgical procedures reimburse at 80%, a comparable option would be to also reimburse your mental health services at 80%. On the treatment side of things, you wouldn’t want to have limitations that would, for example, require an individual to have a diagnosed mental illness in order to have coverage for those mental services. You may also look at your network access and access to the providers with mental care and how that could play into it. Overall, the report suggests that health plans and health issuers are failing to deliver the parity for mental health and substance-use disorders. And it is something that they’re looking to press on and look for some equality in how that progresses.
Mental Health is also gaining traction in Congress and I think there’s some opportunities on the legislative side of things. There are currently hundreds of pieces of legislation on both sides of Congress with inclusions regarding mental health. Various health care committees are looking to refine some opportunities to determine the path forward. Some of the things that are out there:
- Raise awareness regarding Mental Health
- Conduct research regarding the impacts of mental health
- Providing counseling services to victims of declared emergencies
- Grant programs regarding community mental health services
Still need to stay tuned to see what’s going to transpire and what can advance legislatively. But definitely something that is top of mind in Congress.
Sounds like some really great things are on the horizon!
Yes. and I think with that we are about to wrap up. Thank you for joining us today. Just a reminder to those listening, if you’d like to stay up-to-date with the latest trends, benefits, and industry news, be sure to visit BenefitResource.com also sign up for blogs and newsletters. You can also follow us on LinkedIn.
And to end on a Bright Side, we have a quote from author Mary Anne Radmacher:
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is a quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”– Mary Anne Radmacher
Thank you and have a great day.