Forty-two percent of employees with access to mental health benefits say they’re more likely to stay at their job than if they didn’t have them, according to Mercer’s 2021 Health on Demand report.
That’s an impressive number for providing mental health benefits.
The reality employers must come to terms with is mental health support at work is no longer “a perk”. It’s a must-have resource for employees.
The survey of 14,000 employees across 13 countries, also found that 44% of employees, who didn’t have access to mental health benefits, felt unsupported by their employers. And employees who feel unsupported are often unmotivated and don’t feel attachments.
“Mental health benefits are just as important as physical health benefits,” says Dr. Sherry Benton, founder of digital behavioral health platform TAO Connect, in an interview with HRM. “And for employers, they’re important for a few reasons. First, providing them shows employees you care about and have compassion for them. Second, it actually benefits the company.”
She explained that when people struggle with common disorders, like anxiety and/or depression, one of the first things that happens is their memory and concentration are impaired. That means any kind of creative thinking is impaired.
“Your employees aren’t functioning at their best, if they’re struggling with mental health problems. And getting those issues resolved gives you a more productive and effective employee,” said Dr. Benton.
Who wouldn’t want more productive and effective employees, right?
But let’s face it, mental health issues aren’t new. They’ve been around for as long as people have been on this earth. You don’t think prehistoric man had anxieties being chased by tyrannosaurus rex? It’s just that the pandemic brought it very publicly into the light.
According to Dr. Benton, one of the protective factors with any kind of mental health problem is social support. And a lot of social support happens in the workplace. Employees are interacting with colleagues, forming friendships that develop into relationships in which they support and encourage each other. So, when everyone had to go home to work, it pretty much killed that camaraderie.
“While a lot of people tried to do their Friday afternoon cocktail/coffee hours on Zoom at first, it just wasn’t the same, and they started to drop off,” said Dr. Benton. “They weren’t getting their essential needs met. And then they started experiencing anxiety and depression.”
She also pointed out that there has always been a stigma around developing mental health problems and seeking help for them. But with so many people experiencing depression and anxiety from the pandemic and the isolation, more and more people started talking about it. And it brought it to people’s attention that it’s “OK not to feel OK.”
“For most employers, addressing employees’ mental health needs was new,” said Dr. Benton. “As was the realization that attending to your employees’ mental health actually got you higher functioning employees.”
Plus, the fact that it’s much easier to address the needs of the employees you have, than to go find new employees when those suffering from issues must leave. That’s an expensive and difficult process that can land you in the same situation you were in. So, it behooved employers to address mental health benefits.
Levels of care
For employers who haven’t implemented a mental health benefits program yet, it’s not too late.
“It’s good to think about mental health as something absolutely everyone needs at some level,” said Dr. Benton. “Just like you don’t have to wait until you’re physically sick to attend to your physical health, the same is true with mental health.”
And just as there are levels to taking care of physical health, there are levels to taking care of mental health.
Dr. Benton explained that there are basic skills that everyone can benefit from, including things like mindfulness, meditation, and learning to work with helpful and unhelpful thoughts. There’s also working on communication skills, problem solving and emotional intelligence.
“That’s a good place to start because they don’t have stigmas attached to them,” she said. “After addressing the basic skills that everyone needs, go on to offer other levels of care, like self-help resources, coaching, therapy and psychiatry.”
OK to talk about
But above all else, employees must know it’s OK to talk about these things. And by starting with group training on soft and resilience skills, it becomes OK to talk about mental health aspects of life.
Sometimes, however, the people who have the hardest time being open about mental health issues are C-suit level executives.
“They feel they need to be above all of that and in many ways that works against them,” said Dr. Benton. “While it does show vulnerability, pretending that everything is perfectly fine and nothing bothers us isn’t helpful for anyone. No one in a C-suite position gets through life without struggles. And to own your own struggles doesn’t make you any less of a great leader. And in many ways, it probably makes you a better leader.”
The more okay it is to talk about mental health struggles, the more likely people are to get effective help.
What is effective help?
That depends on the person and what they are dealing with. It may be an app on a phone or a coach or group therapy or a medical professional. What’s not effective is a one-size-fits all solution. One hour of therapy once a week may help some people, but it won’t help everyone.
That’s why employers need to provide a tiered mental health benefit program.
But whatever kind of mental health program you provide, it’s Benefits pros’ responsibility to make their employees aware of what they offer and help them understand the benefits.
What you don’t want to happen is to pay for benefits employees don’t use because they don’t know about them or how to use them.
Dr. Benton said a classic example of this is employee assistance programs (EAPs) where you have 1% or 2% of people who use them because they don’t see them as a real option. With EAPs, users typically get one or two phone sessions after which their benefits are used up and they get referred to a medical professional. But that’s a huge out-of-pocket expense, which is often why EAPs don’t get used and aren’t very effective.
Having in-house soft skills is a way to make it real to people that the company really wants you to do this no matter your position.
“In my company, we do online morning meditation once a week. And we have different people in the company lead it, which is nice because it’s not all from the top down,” said Dr. Benton. “Every level of employee tunes in and does it, including the CEO and the front office receptionist – despite it being voluntary. It’s very equalizing and sends the message it’s important and valued.”