While people around the country have been experiencing elevated symptoms of emotional distress over the last few months (thanks, COVID-19), stress is nothing new — especially in the workplace. Fortunately, there are ways for employers to support their workers’ mental health that not only improves people’s well-being but also offers quantifiable business benefits.
Mental health services benefit employees — and employers
Mental health services are needed in the workplace, especially right now. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that around 40% of U.S. adults were struggling with a mental health concern or substance abuse issue in late June.
Mental health issues can affect productivity. When your employees are trying to cope with stress, anxiety, depression and other concerns, their productivity and capabilities can take a hit. In fact, research has shown that people with depression are more likely to be highly productive at work if they receive treatment for the disorder.
Finding ways to reduce employees’ stress can also help keep your entire staff focused on work, rather than personal issues, said Laura Handrick, a senior professional in human resources who covers mental health at work for Choosing Therapy.
“Employees struggling with marital and child-rearing issues can’t help but share those concerns with co-workers,” she said. “By giving them access to mental health resources, they’ll be more self-sufficient, not relying on coworkers and your staff for therapy.”
Access to mental health care and increase profits. And while it is an added business expense, providing mental health benefits could be a profitable decision in the long run. According to the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, benefits such as reduced absenteeism, lower disability costs and higher productivity offset the cost of treatment for mental illnesses and may ultimately benefit your business financially. It has a series of calculators that employers can use to break down the financial impact of common mental health concerns, like depression and substance use disorders, on their business compared with the cost of mental health services.
Offering mental health care services can reduce employee turnover. The psychological and physical consequences of work-related stress have been shown to lead to increased rates of people leaving their jobs, according to the World Health Organization. Having access to mental health services gives workers an opportunity to address stress without quitting, Handrick said.
How to support your employees’ mental health during (and after!) the pandemic
Don’t rely on your human resource team to address your staff’s psychological well-being, Handrick said.
“Your HR staffers aren’t therapists. It’s best for employers to outsource mental health benefits to an employee assistance program (EAP) with licensed therapists who can assist employees with work-related stress, anxiety issues, marital problems and more serious mental health concerns, like depression and child behavioral issues,” she explained.
While workplace-based mental health programs come at a cost, they can be worth the payoff in employee retention and productivity. Here’s what you need to know about making the investment in these types of services.
- Find out what mental health services your employees want
It can be tricky to figure out exactly what types of mental health services would be best for your staff. Avoid conducting a survey, which can make employees feel as though their answers could be used against them in the future, Handrick said.
“Instead, use your eyes, ears and time-off requests to determine whether your employees need mental health support. These days, with the pandemic, layoffs, kids at home, workers working off-site and a looming election, it’s pretty sure that your employees will appreciate mental health resources paid for by their employer,” she said.
Whatever direction you decide to go in, make sure you educate your employees about what kind of support is available through the company and how they can access it. The CDC also recommends raising awareness about signs of a mental health concern and training managers to recognize symptoms of stress and depression.
- Determine the kind of assistance you want to offer
Traditional insurance: If your company includes health insurance in employees’ benefit packages, the policy may already offer coverage for mental health services. While private health insurance policies vary, looking at what’s offered through the government-run healthcare marketplace can give you a sense of the services that may be covered.
These plans are required to cover psychotherapy, counseling and other behavioral health treatments; inpatient services for mental and behavioral health; and treatment for substance use disorders.
But health insurance alone may not be enough to get your staff the services they need. Copays and a lack of providers who accept insurance still create cost barriers that prevent people from getting mental health services, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America.
EAP programs: EAPs are a common way that workers get access to mental health services. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 54% of workers had access to an EAP as of March 2016.
These intervention programs, which may be run by stand-alone vendors or providers through a health insurance plan, offer workers assistance on a range of personal issues. They may help with marital concerns, substance use disorders, child or elder care issues, wellness matters and more.
Some EAPs may only offer referrals to counseling and treatment, while others provide medical benefits like counseling. The services can be provided by phone, video or online chat, through email, or even face-to-face, depending on the program.
Generally, workers can receive up to three free visits per issue from the EAP, Handrick said.
“It’s confidential for the employee. The employer merely receives a report from the EAP provider (without individual names) showing how many workers have used the program,” she added.
Teletherapy: Teletherapy and text-based counseling, like the services offered by TalkSpace and BetterHelp, may be other mental health options for employees. Research has shown that teletherapy can be an effective alternative to conventional mental health care (like in-person talk therapy at a counselor’s office).
Teletherapy comes with other advantages, as well. It may cost less than in-person services (which staff may be avoiding during the pandemic, anyway). It has the opportunity to bring mental health care to places that currently have limited access to such services, like rural areas. Remote, digital mental health services offer flexibility in terms of location and scheduling. Plus, text-based therapy offers another way to communicate that may feel more comfortable for some people.
- Calculate the costs
Traditional health insurance: After the passage of the Affordable Care Act, most insurance plans have some kind of coverage for mental health services included in the cost of the plan. According to a 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation, small businesses can expect to pay between $530 and $650 a month per employee for single coverage.
However, not all plans are created equal. As you’re shopping for health insurance for your company, read through the plan carefully to make sure it offers coverage for the mental health services you want employees to have.
EAP: The cost for EAPs will vary based on the program and number of employees covered. They can cost anywhere from $10 to $50 per month per employee at firms with fewer than 50 workers, Handrick said.
Teletherapy: Teletherapy rates vary from company to company. TalkSpace, for example, charges $260 a month for unlimited messaging therapy five days per week, while rates for counseling range from $40 to $70 per week at BetterHelp. Some teletherapy companies also partner directly with employers to offer services at the workplace, which may reduce costs.
- Work to create an open office culture
You don’t have to offer traditional services to begin promoting healthy mental health habits at your workplace. Making your business a “safe zone, where employees can be real, accepted and included” can help break down stigmas against mental health issues, Handrick said.
Creating this culture starts with employers leading by example.
“The trick for an open office culture is transparency and candor from the top. If the CEO and managers are open about real issues, such as their own stress levels, depression, anxiety or child behavioral issues, the employees may open up about their concerns too,” Handrick said.
That also means figuring out what work-life balance means for you and acting accordingly. When your staff sees you take a personal day to recharge, they too may feel more comfortable using their time off during stressful moments in their lives.
Consider reaching out to employees directly, Handrick said. With so many people working remotely, managers and executives should try to communicate more than usual and check in on their staff regularly. A phone call from the boss can help make employees feel less isolated during what may be a particularly lonely time in their lives — and it comes at no cost to you.
“Show you care for your staff and let them know they can come to you if they need support,” Handrick said.