Mental Health Employee Benefits Are Good for Business

Young woman visiting a counselor
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How does a mental health benefits package help both employees and your bottom line? It’s been estimated that one in every five Americans deals with a medically diagnosed mental illness at some point in their adult life. The number of undiagnosed cases is probably higher than that. The impact that mental illness has on a workplace 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 can cause.

Mental Illness Affects Everyone

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that major mental illness costs the U.S. at least $193 billion each year, and that's just in lost earnings. The Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Foundation advise that it costs companies $44 billion in lost productivity due to untreated depression in the workforce.

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

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.

Health Care Reform and Mental Health Protection

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), 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 the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) require plan administrators to treat mental illness without restrictions, much like the 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 patients from being discriminated against by health insurance providers and support those with limited incomes to pay for services. We have come a long way from shock therapy and incarceration of the mentally ill, but there are still stigmas to mental health that cause some employees to deny that they need help.

Understanding the Barriers to Getting Help

Even being on medication for 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 care until they find themselves hospitalized for a major breakdown. Others may turn to self-medication in the form of 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.

Designing Mental Health Benefits That Work

Fortunately, there are behavioral health plans that can help address mental illness across workplaces. This often involves the use of a multi-integrated approach. The components of a well-designed health plan include:

Establish an Employee Assistance Program

It's a good idea to get an employee assistance program (EAP) 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.

Set up 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. They can get health and medical questions answered to determine if follow-up care with a doctor is warranted or if a visit to the emergency room is needed.

Choose a Plan With Mental Health Benefits

As mentioned above, the ACA requires insurance plans to offer a basic level of mental health coverage, but this can be limited. Employees who are accustomed to high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) may not see the value in using their insurance to pay for counseling sessions, instead reserving their medical dollars for major hospitalizations 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.

Appoint a Contact for Mental Health Communications

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 immediately.

Employee Discounts With Local Wellness Providers

Another helpful method of developing a workplace that’s more supportive of employees facing mental health challenges is to work with local 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. Creating access to local fitness resources and nutrition counseling can help employees stay healthy and productive.

Onsite Mental Health Education and Resources

Perhaps the most critical addition to any employee metal health benefits package 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.

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 communication by bringing up the importance of good overall health and avoiding treating others differently because they may be dealing with a mental illness.

Mental Health Benefits for Employee Wellness

All benefit programs should 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 out an employee for needing help. Instead, provide access to self-service information and resources so employees may seek out the help they need to lead full and productive lives.