A 2020 athenahealth analysis of patient visits to primary care providers (PCPs) found that anxiety and depression are “strikingly common” in more than 24 million patients. With this sharp uptick in mental illness diagnoses over the past year, more must be done in the workplace to help employees and their dependents combat these struggles.
There are several best practices for employers to keep in mind when working to provide mental health support in the workplace.
Workplaces are bustling environments and topics like mental health can be swept aside for seemingly “larger” or “more pressing” issues. However, by discussing mental health openly and frequently, companies can help break down stigmas surrounding the subject.
Small-group fireside chats create a sense of community and allows employers to connect with employees on a more intimate level. These groups present opportunities for employees to ask questions and discuss workload or stress levels with peers and senior leaders. Sending out surveys before these discussions (and around health plan renewal time) is another effective way to gauge overall mental well-being as well as current benefits usage. Surveys also help employers tailor future content, resources and offerings based on the results. By fostering a deeper sense of belonging, companies can create an environment where employees are more comfortable looking to their left and right for help.
Another important key to awareness is being conscious of what’s going on in the world and in your communities, and how it might affect employees. Leadership teams that consistently monitor news cycles can keep a finger on the pulse of what might affect their employees and what support they can offer to help.
A notable example of this includes the racial injustice affecting people of color and Asians across the United States. Recent data from athenahealth shows that from May to December 2020, Asian Americans were significantly less likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety than those who identify as White. The research doesn’t explain why this trend is happening, but it could be that financial factors, provider bias, or cultural stigma around seeking help for mental health play a role. It’s critical for employers to communicate their stance against racially-driven hate, understand the needs of employees across the organization and take swift action to support them to create a healthier environment.
Mental health must go beyond the surface-level discussions of making sure employees practice self-care. It’s up to the employer to provide comprehensive benefits, resources and services that can support mental health issues in a variety of ways, just like any other chronic health condition. By thoroughly evaluating available options, employers can ensure they offer a holistic approach to wellness and the best benefits for their employees’ needs. Providing the right resources will help improve satisfaction in the workplace, driving additional ROI for the employer.
To pinpoint the right resources, it’s important to understand that mental health triggers can stem from a number of other issues. For example, during the pandemic, stress caused from tightened budgets hit an all-time high. In times like this, employers can emphasize financial wellness programs aimed at reducing finance-related stress that could affect employees' mental health, offering mindfulness activities such as free meditation or yoga classes can help employees ease some of the stress and tension from busy workdays and hectic home lives.
Additionally, pregnant women and new moms are often sleep deprived, and their mental health can suffer as a result. Women are twice as likely as men to receive an anxiety diagnosis from their primary care provider and were diagnosed with depression at twice the rate. Of course, men are not immune to mental health struggles, and it’s important to note that this data could point to the fact that many men aren’t seeking care for their struggles. Therefore, it’s critical that men and women receive personalized mental health support options. Creating a well-rounded maternity (and paternity) plan can lessen the stress of returning to work once the baby is born.
Lastly, one of the most important benefits is offering opportunities for employees and their families to seek mental health counseling when they need it. Free and easy access to counseling means your staff will spend less time distracted and overwhelmed. Wellness coaching apps can be a convenient tool that can provide emotional support to staff and their families.
Accessibility also plays a key part in an employer’s mental health support strategy. If the programs and services being offered to employees are too difficult to access and manage, your employees will never utilize them, thus wasting your investment and failing to support their health. Create a platform or internal resource where all the services offered can live, so employees can reference all that is offered.
Convenient access to care makes treatment and support less intimidating. Telehealth offerings for employees and their dependents are helpful because they can add convenience and lessen the time that employees typically need to take off from work, whether it be for themselves or for their children. In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, 33% of mental health visits on the athenahealth network took place virtually.
Some people prefer in-person counseling, so it’s important for companies to be flexible and make traditional care delivery options available to their employees as well. Larger companies may even have the resources available to provide in-office health clinics.
Mental Health Is Not One Size Fits All
teams must recognize they cannot provide what their employees need without speaking
with them regularly. There are so many factors that can bleed into mental
health. Certain holidays like Memorial Day or Juneteenth
and social justice months such as Black History and Pride Month can be triggering for
employees. To help, companies have the opportunity to create fluid support
groups that foster a safe and supportive community. Further, giving focus
groups a chance to meet during office hours and talk through challenges in the
world can bring employees together.
Mental health support is relevant to everyone and needs to be molded to fit each employee uniquely. It can be easy to create a sense of exclusivity when leaning into groups, such as one specific community. However, the needs of one population might overlap with another’s, some mental health needs might overlap with family needs, and the like. This concept rings true for companies operating globally as well. A cookie-cutter mental health benefits program delivered globally could leave out certain sensitivities or norms of other countries.
Mental health is health, and companies must start supporting emotional wellness as much as they support physical wellness. By approaching mental health with an all-encompassing lens and investing in all employees’ and their dependents’ overall well-being, companies can help employees take charge of their mental health and be more engaged and present at home and work, which leads to more stability and better productivity all around.
About the Author
Sarah Nicholson is the vice president of total rewards at athenahealth.