The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic have put renewed focus on the importance of mental health at work. The pressures of remote work, in-home childcare, social isolation and a lack of resources pushed many employees to the brink of burnout and highlighted the need for robust support from employers.
A new report1 from the American Psychological Association shows American workers are feeling the strain:
While the need for mental health support is clear, recent surveys highlight a crucial gap between what employees want (and expect) from their employers and what their employers are currently providing.
A common justification for not providing behavioral health resources is that employees won’t use them — either due to disinterest or a lack of trust in their organization.
New data shows this isn’t true. In the 2021 Workplace Wellness Survey, employees were overwhelmingly in favor of employer-provided benefits:
It’s wonderful that employees are showing such trust in their employers. But the majority of employers are not yet stepping up: Only three out of 10 workers said their employer offered mental health services — including access to counseling sessions or a mental health coach.1
While this gap is concerning, it also presents a huge opportunity: Stress and burnout are among the top drivers of employee exits — stressed employees are more than three times as likely to seek a new position elsewhere, according to Dr. Arthur C. Evans, Jr., CEO of the American Psychological Association, who appeared in our recent webinar, Building a Behavioral Health Strategy.
“In a tight labor market, where we have lots of people who are resigning, lots of people who are not returning to work, it’s much harder to recruit people,” he says. “It is really important for organizations to be able to hold on and retain their employees. And one of the biggest drivers now of people leaving your organization is the stress that they are experiencing.”
Looked at from this perspective, providing behavioral health resources is a win-win for employers. It’s both ethically right and strategically savvy.
This is particularly true for organizations in high-stress industries like health care.
"Taking care of our employees is just the right thing to do," says Andrew Mueller, CEO of MaineHealth, the largest health system in northern New England. "We owe it to them to be there for them — especially in these challenging moments — given all the times they have been there to support our patients and communities. At the same time, there’s a good business case for doing so."
Bringing behavioral health to the forefront at your organization has the possibility to bring great benefits. It will also require shifts in culture and investments in capacity and technology.
Andrew Mueller, CEO of MaineHealth
While not as visible, a mental health crisis can take as great a toll on an employee as a broken limb or an unexpected illness. Thus, employers should provide behavioral health benefits that are as robust — and accessible — as the benefits they offer for their employees’ physical health.
This means ensuring there aren’t unreasonable differences in co-pays for mental health services and that the behavioral health network is large enough to accommodate the needs of employees.
“It is completely unacceptable that if you or your family member needs access to mental health care, that you have to wait sometimes two or three months before you can see someone,” says Dr. Evans. “That would be totally unacceptable if we were talking about a physical illness, and organizations have to have the same kind of urgency around resolving this issue of access to behavioral health.”
Fortunately, advances in technology are helping to resolve supply-side bottlenecks and offer a great experience for employees.
An employee struggling needs support, not a complicated and hard-to-use interface. Difficult and confusing online systems — where a much-needed resource is buried three menu-items deep — compound stress rather than alleviate it. Rather than simply providing a hodgepodge of resources, employers must also offer tools that direct employees to the right support.
Well-designed digital tools take the burden off employees who are already struggling.
“Providing a one-stop-shop sort of experience or a hub experience for all things related to mental health means employees have one place to go,” says Swapnil Prabha, VP of Digital Solutions at Unum. “Ideally, they can be guided through that experience — maybe they share a little bit about themselves in a digital format and the tool or the hub guides them through to the right level of support. They can then be on their way to seek that support and get better.”
But even the best tools are no good if employees don’t use them. That’s why leadership is critical.
While employees want access to mental health support, it’s still up to leaders within a company to create a culture of openness and space for vulnerability. Even as the pandemic has expanded the national conversation around mental health, stigma remains and some employees may not feel comfortable accessing available services absent explicit encouragement from people at the top.
“It’s about creating an environment where these issues are understood,” says Dr. Evans. “It’s so important that leaders set the tone that these are acceptable issues, these are issues we should be paying attention to.”
Employers must be proactive in encouraging employees to take advantage of available services by offering incentives, sharing their own stories, and creating peer-support groups where workers can share common experiences around mental health in a safe environment.
1. American Psychological Association, Compounding Pressure on the American Workforce, 2021.
2. EBRI and Greenwald Research, 2021 Workplace Wellness Survey, 2021.
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