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Mental health benefits help employees and the bottom line

By Tess Taylor, TheBalance.com


How does a mental health benefits package help both employees and your bottom line? It’s been estimated one in five Americans deals with a medically diagnosed mental illness at some point in their adult life. The numbers of undiagnosed cases are probably a lot higher than that. But the impact mental illness has on workplaces is felt in a very real way – from loss of productivity levels, excessive tardiness and absenteeism, to actual loss of employees because of the often debilitating symptoms mental illness comes with.

Mental illness costs everyone

healthky17-300Major mental illness costs the U.S. at least $193 billion each year, just in lost earnings by sufferers, according to The National Institute of Mental Health. Untreated depression in the workforce costs companies $44 billion in lost productivity, the Partnership for Workplace for Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Foundation advise.

When mental illness is left unmanaged, it can lead to a whole host of other workplace related risks, such as increased accidents, workers’ compensation claims, disability, workplace violence, and even claims of harassment and discrimination – scenarios that have become ever so transparent in today’s world.

It makes good business sense, then, to offer full mental health employee benefits to the workforce. Experts advise that early intervention is the key to reducing the costs and incidents of serious mental illness in employees.

So too, early intervention is shown to provide the best possible outcome for those who are experiencing any kind of mental illness. When mental illness is left untreated or undiagnosed, or when employees have limited access to treatment options, they do not get well on their own — and this can all hurt the bottom line of your business in the long run.

Mental health protection is the law

Under the Affordable Care Act, as of 2014, all private and individual medical plans must offer at least the minimum coverage for mental health screenings, substance use services, and preventative care. This requirement is also for medical plans purchased via state marketplaces.

Additionally, group benefit plans cannot deny coverage to anyone just because they have a history of mental illness. Protections required under MHPAEA require plan administrators to treat mental illness without restrictions, much like the approval process for approving a surgical procedure. Medicare and Medicaid also provide basic coverages for mental health wellness and substance abuse treatment.

These laws help to protect mental health consumers from being discriminated against by health insurance providers and support those with limited incomes to pay for services, but there are still many stigmas to mental health so that some employees deny that they need help.

Even being on medication for a mental illness may be viewed as a problem by some, if the medication creates restrictions on the employee’s ability to perform his or her job – for example, medications that cause drowsiness, preventing the use of certain equipment or driving company vehicles.

Other potential barriers to getting help include missing work for therapy appointments, or taking unpaid leave to complete a 90-day substance abuse treatment program.

Unless there is a good insurance plan in place to help defray the costs of quality mental health care and employers do their part to educate employees about their available benefits; many employees simply go without until they find themselves hospitalized for a major breakdown. Others may self-medicate with illicit drugs, alcohol and negative behaviors. In workplaces, undiagnosed and untreated mental illness shows itself in the way that individuals relate to coworkers and clients. It can tear teams and companies apart. It can cause normally wonderful employees to turn into toxic employees.

For these reasons and more, any business can benefit from providing generous group mental health benefits to its workforce.

Employers who value their employees and want to demonstrate this can easily furnish mental health benefits any time of the year, whether the health insurance plan includes this care or not.

Here are some ideas for getting a mental health benefit program in place and make sure that people have access to the services they need to stay well.

Have an Employee Assistance Program

It is a good idea to get an employee assistance program lined up as soon as possible in your organization. This can cost pennies on the dollar for each employee, but the value is immense. EAPs provide direct access to confidential professionals who can assist employees with any area of concern that may be causing them distress – from work-related issues to family problems and mental illness. Employees can be directed to counseling sessions, or they may be eligible for short-term treatment; facilitated by the EAP team. Learn more about employee assistance programs here.

Have a 24/7 nurse hotline

Another choice is to contract with the health insurance vendor to establish a 24/7 nurse hotline for employees and their family members. This can be a way to ensure that employees always have a lifeline where they can get help when they need it the most. They can get health and medical questions answered to determine if follow-up care with a mental health care provider is warranted or if a visit to the emergency room is needed.

Ensure behavioral benefits included

As mentioned above, the ACA requires insurance plans to offer a basic level of mental health coverage, but this can be limited somewhat. Employees who are used to high deductible health care plans may not see the value in using their insurance to pay for counseling sessions – instead reserving their medical dollars for major hospitalization or planned procedures. As an employer, find employee benefits that offer above-average mental health coverage and provide a health savings account to offset out of pocket costs when combined with HDHPs.

Communication should be shielded

Employees may or may not be comfortable discussing their mental health challenges with a manager, or even members of their own family. That’s why every workplace should have at least one human resource professional who is trained in intervention coaching and has established open office hours for discussing such matters in private. Oftentimes, situations can be handled through a referral to a qualified mental health provider, or by mediating any issues through the EAP. Be well-versed in the mental health benefits that are available so that the employee can get the right help at the right time.

Discounts with area providers?

Another very helpful and welcomed method of developing a workplace that’s more supportive of employees facing mental health challenges is to work with area wellness vendors to discount their services. For example, long-term unmanaged stress can be a sign of depression, so having access to a massage therapist who can help reduce stress can be a great benefit. Proper diet and exercise are also important components of good mental health, so creating access to local fitness resources and nutrition counseling can be a great perk.

Education and resources onsite

Perhaps the most critical addition to any employee benefits package where it relates to mental health is access to accurate and timely information. If an employee is facing a crisis, he or she may not understand how to access medical benefits, or who to call for help.

So too, every corporate library should include plenty of educational materials in the form of self-help books, benefits information sheets, and directories of local mental health and medical providers. Management can support the communication by bringing up the importance of good overall health and avoiding treating others differently because they may be dealing with a mental illness.

All employee benefit programs need to be designed around the total well-being of employees, from head to toe. Employees may not display signs of mental illness outwardly, but they may miss work frequently, seem irritable or just stop performing to their previous levels. Mental illness is a protected disability under workforce laws, so never single an employee like this out. Instead, provide access to self-service information and resources so that employees can seek out the help they need to lead full lives.

Employers want to help but lack information how

Employers are unsure how to help their employees with mental health issues, particularly because they are unsure of the number of workers who are affected, new research indicates.

In a Mental Health and Substance Abuse Benefits survey of 247 U.S. employers conducted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, about 158 employers (64 percent) said they thought less than 30 percent of their workforce is affected by mental health or substance abuse issues.

About one quarter of employers did not guess and said they were unsure if their employees were affected at all.

Stigma plays a major role in the discussion of behavioral health problems, which include mental health and substance abuse issues, says Julie Stich, associate vice president of content at the IFEBP, an association serving the employee benefits and compensation industry.

“Addiction is not an easy problem for employers to tackle,” Stich said. “Employees who are struggling with substance abuse issues are often doing so in secret. They may fear that admitting a problem will cost them their job.”

Utilizing the EAP

Despite this uncertainty, which leads to a lack of conversation around the topic, employers are relying on benefit options they already offer, particularly the employee assistance program.

More than nine in 10 employers (91 percent) offer an employee assistance program, which can help employees address these behavioral health problems, according to the survey.

Within their EAP, 91 percent of companies offer assessment or counseling, 87 percent offer mental health assistance or counseling, 79 percent offer access to a crisis hotline, and 62 percent offer legal assistance.

While an employee might suffer from one or more behavioral health conditions, not all are covered under an EAP.

Employers are likely to cover conditions such as depression (88 percent), alcohol addiction (86 percent) and such anxiety disorders as panic disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder (82 percent), according to the survey.

Despite the coverage, employees are largely unaware of the services they have at their disposal, says Mim Senft, president and CEO at Motivity Partnerships Inc., a company that helps employers develop wellness strategies. From 1 percent to 6 percent of employees use an employee assistance program, according to the study.

“Creating a better understanding and connection to the company’s EAP, as well as training the workforce to help identify at-risk individuals, is key to getting to employees before they become addicted,” Senft said. “If employers are serious about solving this issue, they need a strategy and proven solutions.”

Employers offer other options

Without having a conversation with employees about their behavioral health concerns, employers might not be offering their population the
right services.

Some employers offer wellness programs with a mental health or substance abuse component (38 percent) or a stress-management program (23 percent), according to the survey.

Similarly, the treatments for mental illnesses through these programs often include outpatient in-person treatment sessions with a medical professional or therapist (84 percent), prescription drug therapies (76 percent) and inpatient hospital or clinic treatment (69 percent), according to the survey.

Employers often want to help their employees but aren’t sure how, Stich says.

“I think they do care and they are concerned; they haven’t figured out a good way to know,” she said. “Or nobody is talking about it, so they don’t think it’s a pervasive issue.”

5 Warning Signs of Suffering

Nearly one in every five people or 42.5 million American adults, suffers from a diagnosable mental health condition, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age 14.

Often friends, neighbors, coworkers and even family members who are suffering emotionally don’t recognize the symptoms or won’t ask for help.

Check out these five signs that may mean that someone close to you in emotional pain and may need help:

Their personality changes. You may notice sudden or gradual changes in the way that someone typically behaves. He or she may behave in ways that don’t seem to fit the person’s values, or the person may just seem different.

They seem uncharacteristically angry, anxious, agitated or moody. You may notice the person has more frequent problems controlling his or her temper and seems irritable or unable to calm down. People in more extreme situations like this may be unable to sleep or may explode in anger at minor problems.

They withdraw or isolate themselves from other people. Someone who used to be socially engaged may pull away from family and friends and stop taking part in activities they used to enjoy. In more severe cases the person may start failing to make it to work or school.

They stop taking care of themselves and may engage in risky behavior. You may notice a change in the person’s level of personal care or an act of poor judgment on his or her part.

They seem overcome with hopelessness and overwhelmed by their circumstances. That person may be suffering from extreme or prolonged grief, or feelings of worthlessness or guilt. People in this position may say that the world would be a better place without them.