During the COVID-19 pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U. S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019. The Mental Health Index reported a 71% increase in the risk for depression in full-time workers in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels. There are also long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic looming in the future ranging from decreased psychological well-being to higher rates of physical health issues like high blood pressure.
Mental health is now a key concern in the workplace. According to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 4 out of 10 employers changed their benefits to better expand mental health services to employees – with 31% making changes by implementing services like telemedicine.
However, there are many mental health benefits programs an employer can offer to employees. Many of these services do not address the barriers to care and do not evaluate the effectiveness of the care they offer to ensure that it’s supporting the mental well-being of workers. So how can you find the service that is right for your workforce? We’ve rounded up the most popular mental healthcare benefits employers can offer:
These types of benefits can range from educational workshops (like Mental Health First Aid), screenings (like this one offered by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs), paid time off (PTO), and mental health days to on-site massage, yoga and volunteer days. When considering PTO policies, employers should communicate with employees specifically about managing challenging mental health events like bereavement. These kinds of benefits allow employees some time and space to decompress and utilize coping skills they’ve learned in the past to manage stress, intense emotions or negative thoughts.
Talk therapy is a collaborative treatment in which an individual, couple or family speaks openly to a psychologist who is objective and neutral. Traditional therapy can empower employees with new insights into their thoughts and relationships, improve their communication skills, teach them strategies to manage stress and educate them about healthy choices.
Employers may have a group health insurance plan that covers some mental health care expenses, but in-person therapy visits may still cost employees anywhere from $80 to more than $200 per visit — which can discourage employees from accessing care. These visits also require scheduling and can involve traveling to a counselor’s office.
While the pandemic wears on, many therapists are offering care via video chat or phone, but it is unclear whether all traditional providers will be able to make virtual visits a permanent feature. Plus, this model doesn’t solve the problems of high costs and the difficulty of finding an in-network provider. In fact, it’s extremely hard to find a provider as “77% of counties in the United States are experiencing a severe shortage of mental health providers” and it’s expected to worsen post-pandemic.
Employee Assistance Programs
The majority of mid- to large-sized companies offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) provided at little to no cost to employees. EAPs can cover a wide range of services that offer employees help with everything from anxiety, substance abuse and grief, to financial issues, childcare and housing. Unfortunately, multiple studies have shown that despite the high rate of employers offering EAP services, employee utilization within a given year is below 10% and nearly half of employees don’t know or aren’t sure if their company offers one.
Additionally, employees fail to utilize EAPs because they don’t know how to access the benefits, worry about confidentiality or are concerned about mental health stigma in the workplace. Few EAP programs come with an awareness campaign to communicate the availability of these services to employees—so that responsibility falls to employers. In recent webinars, we learned just 5% of employers are happy with their EAP.
When it comes to mental health treatment offerings, counseling sessions provided through EAPs are often capped to a certain number, at which time employees are referred to outside services.
Over the past few years, we have seen the emergence of text-based therapy apps. These apps allow patients to chat with their therapist, and sometimes offer video sessions at an additional cost.
Text-based apps are convenient and can be particularly helpful for those who may be reluctant to get in-person care from a traditional talk therapist. However, they cannot provide the robust care offered by half-hour or hour-long in-person therapy sessions.
While employees can sometimes use their Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA) to pay for these services, they are usually not covered by insurance, which is a problem because they can cost more than $100 per month. However, some of these services have partnered with health plans and EAPs. Nevertheless, the problem of low utilization remains, like EAPs.
Virtual Mental Health
Virtual mental health solutions provide employees with remote, talk-based therapy not unlike what they would receive at a licensed therapist’s office. The virtual care approach has become more common — especially during the pandemic when behavioral health concerns drove some of the largest increases in telemedicine visits. It offers short-term, solution-focused counseling for members and their families.
Virtual mental health has been shown to be effective for treating several common mental health concerns, such as anxiety, depression and stress. It boasts high patient and doctor satisfaction rates due to convenience, cost and access equity. A University of Michigan study reported that roughly half of the patients who used virtual mental health hope to continue using it once the pandemic is over.
For employees, being able to access mental health support virtually can make an enormous difference in their overall well-being. Solutions can vary widely when it comes to mode of contact and can be based on the patient’s comfort using video, audio, live chat or asynchronous messaging. Solutions should be available 24/7 and have a minimal wait time. And counselors should be licensed by the state or be “trained listeners” and coaches. Finally, a virtual mental health solution should be free for members and their families to use and have no predefined restrictions on the number of visits.