Mental Health: Heal the Mind, Heal the Body

More than one in five American adults lives with a diagnosable, treatable mental health condition but can live full and productive lives. A properly structured benefit program can support the very real link between mental health and overall wellness.

Employers that offer health benefits typically include some level of mental health care in their benefits package. Now that many employers are forced to cut costs, cutting back on mental health benefits might sound tempting. However, scaling back mental health benefits may raise health costs in the long term for the 22 percent of adults in the U.S. who suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The Mental-Physical Connection

The most common mental health disorders that arise in the workplace are anxiety and depression. Yet mental problems often present themselves as physical problems, and employees are more likely to seek assistance for a physical problem. Studies have shown that if workers don’t get the treatment needed for their underlying condition, they use a lot of services they don’t need. A medical doctor may not be able to determine what is wrong with a patient and will do a battery of expensive tests because he/she doesn’t want to miss anything. The end result? Physical healthcare can cost a whole lot more when mental health benefits are not available.

Further, employees who have ready access to good mental health benefits are less likely to be out on disability leave. Employees on behavioral health disability tend to stay out longer than those with any other condition, says the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Untreated behavioral illnesses can have other consequences as well. Not only can productivity drop, but mental illnesses such as depression also can compromise employee safety.

Many employers have developed cost-sharing structures to encourage workers to use mental health benefits, including eliminating employee out-of-pocket expenses for initial consultations or employee assistance program (EAP) services. EAPs can offer a wide range of mental health-related services. Some companies have on-site EAPs, providing free counseling in the workplace, while others believe employees are more likely to use an EAP when it is located off-site. Benefits managers often characterize their EAP as a gateway to services, rather than the traditional gatekeeper that limits access to services. EAPs can often serve as a direct link to the benefit plan’s network of mental health providers.

To improve employee access to mental health services, consider the following best practices in benefit design, plan management, monitoring and evaluation:

Benefit design. Analyze the characteristics of your company’s workforce. Look at gender, age, type of profession, etc. to identify any special mental health needs unique to your employee populations — then structure your benefits plan accordingly. Offer a wide variety of physical and mental health work-site wellness programs to help your employees balance work and home life.

Consider on-site counseling or psychiatric care, including consultative and administrative services such as case management, patient advocacy and general advice about the company’s benefits plan. Customize a network of mental health specialists based on employee preference and past claims data.

Plan management. Take an active role in directly managing both plans and vendors. Be sure to clearly communicate the company’s approach to mental health benefits to insurers, EAP vendors and providers, who frequently focus only on controlling costs. In addition to managing multiple vendors, employers must integrate data from a variety of vendor database systems that may not be compatible with the company’s system.

Monitoring and evaluation. Evaluate plan options regularly and work to improve inadequacies. Use performance data to assess the relationship between access to services and employee productivity and health care costs. Establish a mechanism to monitor disability and absenteeism to determine the link between increased mental health spending and decreased employee health problems.

Employee feedback should play a significant role in shaping design and influencing policies. Assess employee satisfaction to improve areas of poor performance and be willing to change policies based on employee complaints. Solicit employee input through focus groups and direct interviews.

By offering comprehensive mental health benefits, your company communicates a corporate culture that emphasizes the value of investing in employee wellness. Meeting the mental health needs of your employees produces long-term savings by decreasing employee health costs, increasing productivity and reducing absenteeism. So you’ll not only have a healthy workforce, but a healthy bottom line as well.

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