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What Employers Must Know About Employee Mental Healthcare in 2021 and Beyond

Every year, the US spends $3.8 trillion on healthcare. What’s more, 90% of this goes to caring for chronic conditions. In an effort to reduce costs, improve the quality of life for their employees, and improve employee retention, for years, employers have shown support for five major chronic conditions: high blood pressure, diabetes, lack of physical activity, obesity, and smoking. These chronic issues cost employers an estimated $36 billion annually. Therefore, making advances towards addressing these issues can result in a significant impact financially. This is more important than ever because – the inconvenient truth is –  that $36 billion is only expected to increase.

The pandemic revealed many issues facing employers. Among them is employee behavioral health. While behavioral health has often been ignored by employers, it’s all but certain that it will emerge as a sixth vital chronic care condition. With all of the challenges brought on by the pandemic, it’s no surprise that employees are reporting higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression than ever before. Research shows that the pandemic could result in a 50% increase in behavioral health issues. This would mean that one-third of all Americans would be in need of care in 2021 and is projected to cost an additional $100-140 billion this year alone. 

With healthcare costs on the rise, the list of conditions growing larger, and the increasing demand for a remote workforce, many employers are turning to technology for solutions. With a growing list of mobile apps that offer guidance for cognitive behavioral therapy in a market that is rapidly expanding, tech solutions are more available than ever before. Here are a few considerations that employers need to be making as they address these new issues:

Behavioral Health is a Chronic Condition

It can no longer be ignored. Behavioral health issues are at an all-time high with 67% of Americans reporting to have increased stress levels in 2021. This comes with a significant financial impact. The global economic losses related to behavioral health are estimated at $16.3 trillion between 2011 and 2030, almost equal to that of cardiovascular disease and surpassing other chronic conditions. In addition, research shows that employees with these behavioral health conditions spend roughly $6,500 more annually than employees without.

Regardless of the growing awareness of this critical issue, studies revealed that there is a looming disconnect among employers. When asked to rank chronic conditions by importance, only 33% ranked behavioral health as being a significant concern, putting it seventh on the list overall. Meanwhile, diabetes was ranked number one for 61% of employers surveyed, despite the fact that data shows behavioral health to have a significantly higher impact financially. In a recent study, research showed that behavioral health conditions cost employers $17 each year per employee in disability wage replacement costs. The next most costly chronic condition is diabetes, costing employees $2 each year per employee. In another study, research showed that lost productivity for those experiencing behavioral health issues cost employers roughly $109 per employee, compared to those with diabetes, costing employers $9 per employee.

With the knowledge of the financial and personal impact that behavioral health conditions have on both employers and employees, employers need to identify solutions for the most prevalent diagnoses. As mentioned above, the solution may be found in tech for chronic care management. Studies have revealed that digital screenings, teletherapy, and digital CBT tools are effective for mitigating both symptoms and costs. Additionally, providing care early on has a significant impact, with the average cost for employees taking leave for a mild form of a condition like depression can be up to 52% lower than the average cost for a severe form of that same condition.

Traditional vs Modern Solutions

A recent analysis of the digital app space showed that there were roughly 300,000 health-related apps available for download on mobile devices. This market is projected to grow to over $230 billion in value by 2023. While new tools are welcomed and many of them show promise, the swift expansion of digital options can make it difficult to know which tools are worth utilizing. It is important that employers are thorough when selecting which tools they will use as it is likely that the more mature digital solutions will become the most robust and engaging tools, ultimately, making them the most effective.

That said, the focus of employers is to find a singular solution. In a recent study, research showed that 71% of employers said that a singular digital solution to behavioral health management was of high importance. The same is true for enterprise-level solutions, with each solution promising mitigated chronic conditions, optimized personal management, and a decrease in employer healthcare costs.

However, regardless of these solutions, the disintegrated nature of behavioral health management creates a significant challenge for employers. The single-issue solutions struggle to have widespread engagement among employees which has a significant impact on the long-term success of their adoption. Studies show that 47% of employers attribute lack of employee engagement as the main obstacle to the adoption of digital solutions. Another study revealed that engagement rates for health insurer’s behavioral health management programs were only 13% on average.

This is why it is important for employees to prioritize more mature digital solutions. The next few years are likely to see many large consolidations as the more mature solutions buy out the single focus tools, creating more robust solutions that deliver better returns. By sticking with more mature solutions, employers will see more engagement as the market and the tools within it grow.

Prevention Over Cures

The obvious real return on behavioral health solutions is that they are positive for both employers and employees. Not only do they improve the health and well-being of employees, but that, in turn, improves the employer’s bottom line. In a recent study from Harvard, research showed that effective workplace wellness programs resulted in a return of $2.37 for every dollar spent on average. Emerging tech solutions help treat behavioral health conditions in ways that were unimaginable before. Teletherapy can connect employees to licensed practitioners with just one click. While they might be costly upfront, immediate returns shouldn’t be the primary focus of employers. The long-term reduction in the cost of behavioral health treatments, drugs, and therapy will undoubtedly result in healthier, loyal employees.

Digital management solutions provide an opportunity to make a significant and real change for your employee’s mental well-being. While it’s easy to be discouraged by growing healthcare costs and troubling statistics on American mental health, now is the appropriate time to provide your employees with a comprehensive behavioral health management solution. In doing so, you will be making progress towards a healthier workforce and a brighter future for all.

The trajectory of behavioral healthcare might be daunting and more unpredictable than ever before, however, digital solutions bring promise. These tools not only help improve the health of your employees, but they can also have a positive impact on costs, retention, and resilience. Employers that embrace the behavioral health concerns, seek out a singular solution, and focus on long-term employee health will be better equipped to handle the issues of rising healthcare costs and the evolving needs of their employees.

Fostering Mental Health Awareness in Your Workplace

“Mental health” is one of the biggest talking points in the current social climate. People are more aware than ever about the direct connection between how they feel and how they function.

At the same time, many businesses are struggling to assess and calibrate their approach to employee mental health because (1) the topic was unfortunately taboo for decades and (2) they lack a high-level understanding of what mental health really is and means.

Moving forward, we’ll explore:

  • Ways in which employee mental health affects employee work and the workplace
  • The importance of starting a dialogue about employee mental health
  • How you can use employee benefits education as an opportunity to discuss mental health
  • How you can learn more about the most important mental health topics affecting the workforce

How Mental Health Affects the Workplace

Mental health directly affects workers’ ability to physically function. Their energy levels, clarity of thought, and ability to communicate effectively are all tied to their ongoing mental health.

In previous eras, people were told to “suck it up and work through it,” but now we understand that approach is counterproductive and only makes employee mental health struggles worse.

Let’s take a look at three main ways mental health affects employee work on a daily basis:

Performance

When people aren’t feeling like their best selves, they can’t do their best work. Anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other conditions all impact employees’ abilities to work like the superstar talent you hired.

Sometimes, managers or supervisors will infer that the quality of an employee’s work is “slipping,” but the truth of the matter is when great talent suddenly starts underachieving, there can often be a mental health component involved. Those moments should be treated as opportunities to address mental health, connect employees with the support they need, and continue the relationship forward in a positive way.

Morale & Culture

Part of building a great business is creating an environment and culture where everybody feels valued, enfranchised, and bought into a unifying mission. In order to achieve that, you need positive enthusiasm and daily participation from your team members.

Mental health struggles can create significant roadblocks to engaging with company culture. Social anxiety can make part of participating in any community tough, and depression can easily undermine enthusiasm and authentic buy-in. When those issues go unaddressed, the cumulative effect can slowly erode the strength of your culture and the morale of your team overall.

Safety

People frequently unfairly compartmentalize physical and mental health, but there are several crucial points of interdependency between them. One of those is the physical safety of your workforce on the whole.

When employees are experiencing or suffering from mental health struggles at work, it inhibits their ability to do their job in the best way possible. In an industrial, manufacturing, or warehouse environment, for example, that translates to increased hazard and safety risks. Even in a traditional office, bottled up, unaddressed mental health issues can lead to confrontations between employees. Ongoing employee relations issues can create an environment where team members don’t feel safe.

Why it’s Crucial to Start a Dialogue About Mental Health

The vast majority of mental health issues (work-related and otherwise) remain unaddressed because of the culture of silence and stigma attached to admitting you need some help. Words like “crazy” and “nuts” have been thrown around homes and offices for decades to describe people who are difficult to work with, and nobody wants to be that.

If you as an employer don’t proactively start a positive dialogue about mental health, your employees will assume that you don’t care about it or don’t want to hear about their mental health needs. A great first step in addressing workplace mental health is breaking the ice and saying the words “your mental health is important to us.”

The second you initiate that dialogue, you become a far more human employer to your workers, building authentic buy-in and increasing engagement by showing them you really care. By taking that first step, you squash the stigma and communicate clearly to your team – both those with self-identified mental health needs and those without – that you’re a holistic, future-facing employer who takes these matters seriously.

In the current environment, that sort of proactive environment will only boost your current employees’ daily satisfaction and productivity, with their positive experience eventually trickling down in ways that you can leverage for improved recruitment.

Using Employee Benefits as a Jumping-Off Point

Starting the conversation about mental health can often be the hardest part, but employee benefits education provides the perfect opportunity to initiate a dialogue in a way that feels natural, supportive, and maximizes access to resources.

When you connect mental health discussions to your traditional healthcare benefits education, you clearly establish that mental healthcare is healthcare. That means you expect employees to protect that health and get what they need, just like you’d expect them to get their arm casted if they broke it. It also means, just like casting a broken arm, there’s absolutely no reason to feel reservations about seeking the necessary care and using employer-provided insurance to get it.

It’s also important to explicitly discuss the connection between mental health, performance, and work-life balance. When you discuss those concepts out loud and make them real, you signal to your workforce that they are equal values of yours. You want and expect your employees to be healthy, do great work, and have a fulfilling life away from the office. 

Nobody wants to hear why they need to take care of themselves, but if you use your yearly open enrollment education as an opportunity to start a dialogue about mental health, you’ll actually be opening doors and removing mental barriers to care for your employees. By stressing the importance of mental health, describing how your benefit packages address mental health, and what employee assistance program resources are available in times of mental health struggle, you create a support system that makes benefits more valuable for everyone and goes a long way to strengthen your team on the whole.

Why Aren’t These Already Common Practices?

The two primary reasons employers haven’t been addressing mental health during benefits enrollment are that they either assumed the conversation wasn’t necessary or felt the stigma around mental health was so strong that it would be awkward or uncomfortable to discuss it. Both those assumptions are completely false. Mental health is relevant in every workplace and for every worker and talking about it is empowering, not embarrassing.

Many great organizations with progressive, employee-centric mission statements are only now beginning to appreciate the importance of a mental health dialogue, as decades of business tradition and norms maintained the wall of silence. As mental health awareness spreads throughout the workforce and access to appropriate healthcare continues to improve, the workforce and business space as a whole can only get stronger.

Takeaways

Employee mental health is one of the fastest growing areas of focus of human resources professionals, business leaders, and ground-level supervisors. Remember:

  • Employee mental health can affect performance, morale, culture, and safety
  • It’s extremely common for employees to experience mental health struggles at some point
  • The first step to addressing the issue is to break the silence, name the problem, and talk about it
  • Employee benefits education provides the perfect venue to start these discussions in a safe, positive, supportive manner
  • In the near future, workforce maximization will depend on addressing and prioritizing employee mental health in powerful ways

Understanding Employee Burnout from the Inside-Out

Imagine the following scenario: an impactful, talented, well-liked employee walks into your office and tells you that they quit. You’re shocked – betrayed, even, and in spite of your best efforts to make things right, that employee is so sure that they’re done working for you that there’s no winning them back.

From a management perspective, it’s easy to say, “I don’t know what happened; they just snapped one day,” but that shows a complete lack of introspection and talent-minded thinking. Those sudden, damaging separations are often the result of a very real condition called employee burnout.

As a business leader, one of your top goals should be supporting your workers’ job enablement and mental health in a way that prevents burnout and keeps the great talent you have plugged into your team.

Moving forward, we’ll explore:

  • What exactly is employee burnout?
  • Why burnout management/prevention is crucial to growing businesses
  • What are the most common factors that lead to employee burnout?
  • How to proactively address burnout at your organization

What is employee burnout, really?

In a nutshell, employee burnout is work-based exhaustion or frustration that has grown and festered beyond the point of no return.

Burnout is very much a workplace mental health issue because, when someone is burnt out, they can’t cope or connect with their work in a positive way. In our career-centric culture, that can easily erode someone’s feelings of self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-worth.

The problem of burnout isn’t just localized to the office, either. When employees are burnt out professionally, they’re not the same strong, reliable, positive friends, partners, or family members at home or on the weekends.

Burnout isn’t just about being “fed up,” it’s about not being able to continue anymore. If that sounds like a dark place, that’s because it is!

Why is recognizing and preventing burnout a top business priority?

Preventing burnout should be a crucial business priority for two key reasons:

  1. Recognizing and fighting the burnout problem protects your talent and human capital investments as well as your productivity
  2. It’s the right thing to do for your employees

Let’s talk about that second reason first. Given the rising public awareness of mental health and the current social/political climate with regard to labor relations, it’s important to be an organization that treats people right. Part of demonstrating you’re a modern, forward-facing business is considering the whole employee: mind, body, and spirit.

From a bottom-line perspective, preventing burnout is like preventing errors in code or promoting workplace safety: a little proactive investment and effort up-front protects the long-term health and viability of operations.

If you hope to achieve steady, sustainable growth and maximize your talent, you can’t let productivity and quality of work slip due to burnout, and you certainly can’t let yourself fall behind the pace of business due to talent turnover.

What factors lead to employee burnout?

There’s no one thing that burns employees out; it’s generally a combination of factors. Here are the most common problems/situations that contribute to the overarching burnout issue.

Lack of employee agency

Your workers may be “employees,” and that means they’re there to work for you, but they still need to feel like they have ownership of their individual responsibilities and a voice within the organization.

When workflows are over-structured, managers and supervisors micromanage, or company initiatives and directives constantly pull employees in different directions, it’s a perfect recipe for burnout.

The more freedom and self-determination you can give your employees while still providing the structure and accountability to accomplish great work, the better.

Lack of work/life balance

Your employees are yours 40-or-so hours a week, but there are still 125-plus more hours in the week when they are full-time spouses, parents, friends, family members, neighbors, and so on. In order to be a great, employee-centric manager or leader, you need to value your team members’ ability to enjoy their time away just as much as you value the work they do in the office.

When employees constantly have work to do from home or there’s the expectation of staying late into the evenings, it eats into their ability to be a strong, engaged person away from the office. That means too much work (or even too much communication about work) can easily eat away at a worker’s ability to relax or feel fully invested in their families, hobbies, etc.

That frustration from home boomerangs back to the office, where resentment, frustration, and steam that wasn’t able to be blown off quickly combine into the perfect recipe for burnout.

“Suffering in silence”

The vast majority of burnt out employees who quit suddenly (as we described above) didn’t just decide they were done that day. Those folks have usually been suffering in silence for months!

There are all sorts of minor daily frustrations that many great employees simply won’t bring up, either because they don’t want to complain, they fear they’ll be ignored, or it just doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Part of being a proactive manager is recognizing the signs of somebody suffering in silence and reaching out to them to take corrective action before things reach the tipping point. Establishing clear pipelines and resources to address concerns (and honoring that commitment) is crucial as well.

Let’s take a look at some of the minor attacks on workplace mental health that can easily snowball over time and lead to burnout:

Poor communication

Communication is everything when it comes to the employee experience. Employees need to know what they’re expected to do, how they’re expected to do it, who they’re expected to do it with, and what they’re expected to achieve. When you don’t provide that information, you’re setting everybody up for frustration.

Great workplace communication isn’t just about dictating things to employees – in fact, that’s one of the most frustrating and burnout-inducing approaches – but instead maintaining an open, positive dialogue about what’s happening, how people are doing, and where the work is going.

Poor performance management

That great employee who quit out of nowhere probably felt like your managers and organization in general weren’t doing enough to help them get to the next step. Often, high-achieving team members are not included in conversations about improvement, goal setting, etc., and the general assumption is, “They’re doing great. Why fix what’s not broken?”

Often, those employees who are already “doing great” actually see the flaws, weaknesses, or shortcomings of their work very clearly. That’s part of what makes them a great worker – they’re reflective, introspective, and self-aware. As other burnout factors begin to frustrate them or erode their confidence, they start desperately looking for coaching or guidance that never comes.

At the other end of the spectrum, when employees know they are struggling and there isn’t a clear performance management/improvement framework in place, they start getting worried that the axe could be coming at any minute. They wind up with one foot out the door because they would rather get a fresh start somewhere else than suffer through the termination they expect is coming.

Poor human capital management

The way you move employees through your organization should build confidence and make everybody feel like they’re part of a growing community loaded with great opportunities. If your approach to HCM leaves people feeling nervous, left out, or underappreciated, you risk burnout out some of your best core employees.

For example, let’s say an opening has just become available at the marketing director level. You have an excellent content coordinator who has been a member of the marketing team for three years, yet you don’t consult with them about their interest in the job before hiring an outside director who’s worked for a competitor.

That great content coordinator (and the whole team of writers, designers, developers, producers, etc. who know their work and respect their management style) could easily be disappointed, suffer morale damage, and even backslide in terms of productivity. If you had promoted the content coordinator and bumped up other members of the team accordingly, you could’ve boosted morale and generated new authentic engagement and increased buy-in that would’ve improved the quality of work. Making the right decision for everybody isn’t cut-and-dried, but it’s worth thoughtful consideration when it comes time for any human capital decision.

Lack of recognition

When people know they’re doing great work for long stretches, they don’t like to feel that their employer is wringing every last drop of work and energy out of them like a sponge. Feeling “used and abused” without proper check-ins and positive reinforcement is one of the things that burns out great employees faster than anything!

Preventing burnout requires a proactive approach to calling out, recognizing, and rewarding strong work. That doesn’t just mean slaps on the back, friendly emails, and positive callouts during team meetings, either; it means real rewards like bonuses, promotions, new opportunities, and so on.

Lack of proactive mental health dialogue

So often, thoughtful, sensitive, and productive employees don’t realize they’re getting burnt out until they’re typing up their letter of resignation. As their employer (and, from a business/profit standpoint, an investor in their talents), you need to create a support system that gets your team members the help and resources they need to recognize, navigate, and solve mental health issues early-on to prevent burnout.

In any mental health scenario, the most important thing you can do is talk about it. Talking destigmatizes the topic and helps everybody come together and recognize that everyday challenges are a shared experience, not an individual struggle.

Key Takeaways

Workplace mental health is one of the hottest topics in human resources and labor relations right now. Unfortunately, employee burnout is still frequently treated as an individual employee problem rather than a business-wide health issue to be addressed.

Remember:

  • Employee burnout is a workplace mental health issue (i.e. your responsibility to address as an employer)
  • Addressing/preventing burnout is part of maximizing your talent investment
  • Burnout can be caused by a variety of factors, but most of them involve feeling powerless, overworked, out-of-the-loop, or under-appreciated
  • Most employees who “burn out suddenly” have actually suffered in silence for a long time
  • It’s crucial to start a dialogue about burnout and mental health issues to eliminate the stigma and connect your employees with what they need to strengthen operations overall