Behavioral Health Crisis: How Employers Are Addressing the Pandemic

Posted by: 
Dan Jolivet
A man resting his face on his hand

Co-authored with Melissa Oliver-Janiak

Almost half of workers are now suffering from mental health issues. And the behavioral health crisis is growing as the pandemic continues. One bright spot? Our latest survey shows that employees are more comfortable asking for help. And employers are stepping up.1

Here’s a look at the impact of the pandemic on the workplace and what solutions employers are trying. Plus three strategies they can apply to help ramp up resources and reduce stigma.

Employee Mental Health: Before and During the Pandemic

Before the pandemic, our 2019 research showed that 39% of employees reported mental health issues. Now, the number’s up to 46%. And 55% of workers struggling with a mental health issue say that it’s affected their work more since the pandemic began.1

What’s driving this big increase? Challenges related to the pandemic include:

  • Adapting to remote work
  • Adjusting to distance learning and/or parenting while working
  • Heightened loneliness
  • Anxiety about COVID-19
  • Lack of social interaction, engagement and connection
  • Less exercise and/or physical issues related to poor ergonomics while working from home
  • “Living at work” feeling

Comfort Zones: Is It Okay to Ask for Help?

Employees were struggling with asking employers for help before the pandemic. Less than half (38%) reported they felt comfortable seeking help from their employer for mental health issues. Even fewer (32%) felt comfortable asking their employer for help with substance use issues.1

Worries about stigma had led to silence. Pre-pandemic, more than a third of workers (35%) said they were worried about their coworkers finding out about a mental health issue. And 17% said they were afraid they’d be fired if their employer found out they had a mental health condition.1

For substance use, those concerns were even greater, with 38% worrying that their coworkers might find out. And 46% of workers feared being fired for a substance use problem.1

The bright spot? Employees are more comfortable now than pre-pandemic seeking and accepting employer help. For example, 45% now feel comfortable asking for help at work, versus only 38% pre-pandemic.1

How are employers doing? Better but not yet great. Before the pandemic, employers received fairly low marks when it came to employees feeling supported. They still receive overall low grades, but there’s a positive trend. Almost a third of employees now say their employers are doing better at improving access to mental health services and support.1

Opening the Door: Making a Difference

The Standard’s own experience shows how attitudes and comfort levels can change when employers step up. We’ve tried to reduce stigma and address behavioral health needs by acknowledging the difficulty of the past year. The pandemic put a spotlight on what was already there bubbling in the background.

For example, The Standard began offering wellness days in mid-2020. Usage is high — around 50% — proving the need was there. We’re also offering expanded mental health benefits and actively inviting employees to take advantage of them.

When employers open the door to accessible support, they’ll find that employees are ready to seek help.

3 Strategies: Increase Support and Reduce Stigma

We as a country cannot address behavioral health without employers being involved. Here are three strategies employers can adopt to ramp up support for employees — and change workplace culture.

Strategy 1: Adapt Your Benefits

Younger employees are hard-hit by the pandemic and want mobile and easily-accessible benefits. An employee assistance program is a great start, but also consider adding or enhancing benefits like:

  • Wellness days
  • Pandemic leave
  • Child-care subsidies
  • Robust mental health services

Strategy 2: Partner With Your Vendors

Partner with your health insurance carrier, of course, and also pull in other vendors. Disability insurance carriers can help address behavioral health issues, but they’re often overlooked by employers.

At The Standard, we see great success in helping employees with mental health issues stay at work or return to work. With 11 dedicated behavioral health professionals on staff, our Workplace PossibilitiesSM program can offer holistic support. For example, we can help HR teams offer creative accommodations, tailored to employees’ individual needs. These services are included with most of our group disability plans.2

Can partnering with a disability carrier make a difference? Yes! Here's a look at the 12-year track record of The Standard's Workplace PossibilitiesSM program, based on results from 2008-2020.3

Over 4,600 employees with mental health or substance use conditions have participated in our stay-at-work and return-to-work programs. And we've seen success:

 

Stay-at-Work ServicesReturn-to-Work Services
89% of participants successfully stayed at work.380% of participants successfully returned to work — more than double the average RTW for people who go on disability leave for behavioral health conditions.3
Total costs for SAW services = $118,000Total costs for RTW services = $2.8 million
Avoided almost 1,300 lost workdaysAvoided over 28,200 lost workdays
Direct claim-cost savings for SAW services = $215,000Direct claim-cost savings for RTW services = $4.8 million
Indirect cost savings for SAW services = $430,000Indirect cost savings for RTW services = $9.6 million
Gross Return on Investment direct-claim costs for SAW = 182% (Net = 82%)Gross Return on Investment direct-claim costs for RTW = 173% (Net = 73%)
Gross ROI for all direct & indirect costs of SAW = 547% (Net = 447%)Gross ROI for all direct and indirect costs of RTW = 518% (Net = 418%)

 

In our experience, 16% of all return-to-work referrals involve behavioral health conditions. This suggests that people diagnosed with these conditions are being identified and referred appropriately.

There’s a big opportunity for stay-at-work referrals. Less than 1% (0.8%) of the stay-at-work referrals we receive involve people diagnosed with behavioral health conditions. And only 1.4% of those referrals are for employees with substance use conditions. That indicates these employees are not being identified by their employers or referred appropriately for help.

Strategy 3: Work to Reduce Stigma

While the pandemic may help reduce the stigma around mental health and substance abuse, it’s still a significant problem. Reducing stigma is a crucial step in addressing behavioral health. To evolve workplace culture, employers need to:

  • Start from the top. Leaders can help de-stigmatize mental health by speaking up. Employees appreciate leaders and HR acknowledging the mental health crisis. And as The Standard’s experience shows, when leaders advocate for using wellness days, it can be very beneficial for employee morale.
  • Introduce an anti-stigma campaign. Free resources such as Make It OK are available online. These campaigns have the greatest impact on EAP utilization of any intervention.4
  • Discourage stigmatizing language. Remind employees to stop using behavioral health terms in joking or demeaning ways. (For example, “I’m going crazy” or “I’m just going to kill myself.”)

Mission Critical: Support Employees’ Well-Being

Supporting employees’ well-being is more important than ever. Employees spend a third of their weekdays at work. Helping them cope with their unique situations positively benefits individuals and companies.

Although the current situation is bad, the good news is behavioral health conditions are treatable. Working together, we can get through this crisis.

Resources: Reports, Tips and Tools

For more resources to help create a workplace that fosters mental health, visit our Behavioral Health Resource Center. And subscribe to our Workplace Possibilities Blog. You can find Dr. Dan Jolivet on Twitter — Ask Dr. Dan @ The Standard.