How are you Supporting the Mental Health of Your Employees?

Jennifer Santisi
Director of Communications, IBI

Over the past 18 months, we’ve had our lives altered by the pandemic and as a result, it’s taken a toll on the mental health of many in the US. Mental health has been top of mind for many employers, who must navigate how best to support their staff’s health and wellbeing.

What is the current landscape in the US as far as mental health of our workforce? And how can employers best support their staff? IBI sought to answer these questions during a webinar, Prioritizing Mental Health in the Workplace, on November 4.

“This particular challenge hit my family directly. I have a 18-year-old who a year ago today was sitting in a pediatric emergency room for 4 days…awaiting a psychiatric bed,” shared IBI President Kelly McDevitt. “While I had for 35 years helped large employer’s navigate these issues for their own employees, I had never been faced with it personally. So a year ago, we began our journey through a broken mental health system.”

The mental health landscape

Anxiety and depression symptoms skyrocketed for employed adults during the pandemic, more so than adults in general, according to IBI’s latest analysis. Before the pandemic, 8.7% of employed US adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, increasing to 39.5% of adults during the pandemic—a 4-fold increase in reported symptoms, compared to just a 3-fold increase for US adults in general.

Employees with work disruptions-- including those who shifted to telework or went on leave, or those with kids home from school-- are more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“Even when your counseling needs are fully met, when you experience work disruptions like switching to telework or having kids home from school, you’re more likely to report anxiety or depression symptoms than without those work disruptions,” said Nicole Nicksic, Ph.D., IBI’s Research Lead.

How can employers help?

In surveying employers, IBI found their biggest challenges to be access to care, employee engagement, stigma reduction and effective communication. “The biggest complaint I heard when I joined Grainger [pre-pandemic] was that parents could not find in-network providers for children who were experiencing [mental health] difficulties,” said Lisa Thompson, Director of Benefits at W.W. Grainger, Inc.

“There was network inefficiency, trying to get people appropriate care within the network…and the affordability issue,” shared Matt Ponicall, Senior Vice President, Benefits Bank of America.

In Lisa’s case, Grainger was able to carve-in mental health as part of their health plan and made significant changes to their Employee Assistance Program (EAP), rebranding it to a stress management program. Prior to the changes, staff reported waiting 4 to 6 weeks for an appointment with a provider. With their new EAP provider, staff are now able to see providers in 24 to 48 hours.

“In 9 months with the previous EAP provider, we had about 1100 access the program. In the first 18 days, we had 500 people access the new provider. I think the rebranding, leadership support, talking about taking care of your emotional health, those things have made this work at Grainger,” Lisa emphasized.

Leadership support was lauded by both Laura and Matt as being critically important. “EAP, people don’t know what it means, so we changed it to confidential counseling,” said Matt. “We had tremendous support from leadership, we had our CHRO lead a courageous conversation on suicide prevention, and it was the second highest rated broadcast behind our CEO’s townhall. We saw our behavioral health utilization skyrocket.”

Measuring success and looking into the future

Both Matt and Lisa agree that it’s difficult to measure success of these new programs. “We’re still working through this, we don’t have an answer,” said Matt. “What does our measurement strategy look like moving forward in the emotional wellbeing space? What’s the next phase of solutions that we think would be really impactful for our population?”

Laura said that in Grainger’s case, the new EAP is still being evaluated. “I really want to test this new vendor to see if they will get our employees better faster, and will they be able to help our leave incidence. We need to study this in 2022 to see if it’s meeting our needs,” she added.

Whether you’re 10,000 or 100 employees, in the end, both Matt and Laura agreed that the following are needed for change:

  • Leadership support and discussions to breakdown stigma around mental health
  • Make the stories real, employees react to other employees
  • Ask your leaders how their workforce is doing and how they’re interacting with current programs
  • Work with current health plan partners -- ask vendors to focus on behavioral health; ask how are the clinical teams; how are they integrating behavioral health resources as they manage medical cases?
  • Don’t just look at medical claims, look at the leave data too

“Don’t be afraid to talk about mental health. Pretending mental health challenges don’t exist, doesn’t help anyone,” said Lisa.