The mental health crisis is real, and it came to my home.
Like many families during the pandemic, the isolation and disruption of remote learning, the stress of the election and racial unrest all took a toll on my family. The result was my son, a 17-year-old senior in high school, entering the mental health system in crisis.
Even as a lifelong healthcare executive with extensive knowledge of the market, as well as many connections, navigating a broken and completely overwhelmed behavioral health system was still extremely daunting.
While mental health challenges in the U.S. were widespread long before the pandemic, the fallout of COVID-19 continues to disrupt the mental, physical and financial health of so many. A recent study by the Integrated Benefits Institute found that two in five employed adults report symptoms of anxiety or depression disorder—a startling 400% increase from pre-pandemic levels. Those that have the highest likelihood of experiencing mental health issues are younger (people ages 18-24), and women are disproportionately affected (42.9%) compared to men (34%).
Employers, employees and their families struggle with stigma surrounding mental health, as well as access to care, and disparities in the delivery of quality care. There must be a greater sense of urgency to make changes that remove barriers and improve access—and employers and other private healthcare purchasers have an opportunity to make a difference.
New technology, a growing number of vendors, and insufficient data and guidance combined with an overly stressed, diminishing workforce make mental health one of the top priorities employers must address. Based on an assessment of our members, here are some of the top benefit strategy solutions to mitigate mental health issues among employees.
Improve access to care: Address the ongoing shortage of mental health providers and limited availability by working closely with the employee assistance provider, behavioral health and medical carriers to monitor response time and length of time to see an appropriate provider. Many employers also are using virtual and digital care solutions.
Engage employees: Improve awareness and engagement by incorporating communication strategies that focus on the value and availability of resources and use incentives to increase engagement.
Reduce stigma: Encourage employees to be comfortable communicating their mental health needs by offering programs that normalize what are often common struggles for many. This can be accomplished through regular check-ins with managers, lunch-and-learns and other efforts providing a safe space to express fears or concerns.
Communicate: If employees are not aware of available resources, they will not access or benefit from them. Educate leaders and managers on how to effectively pass on messages directly to employees.
Prioritize mental health: Leverage leadership and communicate frequently to encourage participation and promote the importance of prioritizing mental wellbeing over work/life tasks and make support tools readily available.
Streamline resources: Especially important for large organizations where multiple departments are involved, partnering together to streamline implementation of program resources will ensure that initiatives are aligned to support existing departmental efforts and goals.
Measure impact on productivity: The mental health of a workforce can have a significant impact on productivity, medical costs and the strength of the organization. Organizations that increase awareness of and offer support for these issues can realize cost savings and productivity boosts.
In addition to the noted strategies, employers also should consider incorporating the use of analytics to monitor disability, employee assistance programs, behavioral health, pharmacy and medical utilization through claims data. Employee and screening surveys are also recommended to determine how well companies are supporting mental health needs and understand how people are feeling.
While my son is still on his journey and has improved greatly, many others will need help at some point in their lives. We need to continually ensure that resources are more readily available and appropriate. As purchasers, employers play an important role in stopping the stigma, making sound benefit strategy decisions that redefine wellbeing, engagement, and productivity and improving access to care to meet the growing need.
Kelly McDevitt is president of the Integrated Benefits Institute.