How One Employer Helped Reduce Mental-Health-Related Disability Leaves

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Brian Kost

A recent study by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showed that the economic burden of depression has increased to over $210 billion per year.1 Not only is depression in the workplace a huge financial cost, it also takes a toll on both the affected employee and his or her coworkers.

In his latest blog post, my colleague Jeff discussed the importance of taking a team approach when making return-to-work plans after an employee’s mental-health-related disability leave. By bringing together the employee, employer, mental healthcare provider and disability vendors, an employer can create an integrated and more effective and efficient transition into the workplace.

The Approach in Action

One of the best examples of this type of integrated approach was a program implemented in Hennepin County, Minnesota. During the economic downturn in 2008, the county government experienced high mental health leave rates and, at the time, had no established return-to-work program in place. For guidance and support, the county turned to the Workplace PossibilitiesSM program, which supported the organization by implementing an on-site nurse, who was stationed at the organization. The nurse had a strong mental health background to help reduce the incidence and severity of depression and help facilitate quicker return-to-work plans, when appropriate.

During this time, the on-site nurse acted as a member of the human resources team, providing valuable information and insights regarding employee return-to-work needs to the HR group responsible for helping with employee absences. Not only that, she helped advocate for employees and, in certain cases when an employee consented, she was able to attend some physician appointments. While this may seem unusual, the nurse’s attendance at these physician appointments helped the employee, the employer and the employee’s physicians better understand treatment options as well as possible workplace accommodations.

Positive Outcomes

Having an on-site disability expert acting as an integrator to help with employees’ return-to-work plans was instrumental at Hennepin County. Over a three-and-a-half year period from 2009 to mid-2013, Hennepin County saw a significant reduction in disability claims, resulting in a net cost savings of $413,000 in disability wage replacement after subtracting program costs. Savings were calculated on a case-by-case basis, comparing the actual disability durations against those predicted by a commercial evidence-based model. Those savings included 1,730 days of lost time avoided, according to the predictive model. The program also had stay-at-work interventions yielding net cost savings of $156,500 compared to historic claim costs.2

By investing time and resources into the return-to-work program, the county not only saved money but also improved their employees’ health and productivity. Hennepin County stands as a prime example of a successfully applied integrated return-to-work approach. Employees returning to work after mental health leave felt safe and appreciated by their employer. In addition, the county was able to keep employees at work and healthcare costs down because they turned to an expert who served as both a counselor as well as an advocate for employees.


1 Greenberg, PE, AA Fournier, T Sisitsky, CT Pike, RC Kessler. The Economic Burden of Adults With Major Depressive Disorder in the United States (2005 and 2010). Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 76:2. Feb. 2015. Retrieved at

2 Integrated Benefits Institute. IBI Employer Case Study: Hennepin County. 2013. Accessed April 19, 2016, at


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