2020—the year mental health coverage finally gets the spotlight. The WHO had estimated before the coronavirus pandemic began that, “The global economy loses more than US $1 trillion per year due to depression and anxiety.” Fast forward and COVID-19-related mental health issues will increase that loss.
If your business hasn’t already, now is the time to focus on providing mental health support and coverage to your employees. This isn’t a trend that will fade away. Employees need and want help, and they are willing to find a new employer who understands that. As a business owner, you can use mental health coverage as a competitive advantage to increase employee productivity, team diversity, and your bottom line.
What Is Mental Health?
The CDC says: “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.” The CDC emphasizes that mental health and mental illness are not the same—mental health is about well-being, whereas mental illness is “conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood or behavior, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.”
Mental health issues are so common that you likely know someone who has been impacted. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated in a 2018 survey that 15% (1 in 7) of all adults had received mental health services in the prior 12 months (that number excluded children, adolescents, and anyone seeking treatment for alcohol or illicit drug usage). Imagine what that number looks like now with the increase in mental health issues after a chaotic 2020.
Why Is Mental Health a Focus Now?
Why is mental health finally a topic we can talk about? A few reasons include the coronavirus pandemic, the younger generations’ attitude, and advances in the field of mental health.
COVID-19 stressors are everywhere—the 24-hour news cycle, exposure fears, unemployment, remote working, and distance learning. Throw in social distancing isolation (virtual hugs aren’t the same) and it’s no surprise a Qualtrics survey showed 41.6% of respondents reported a decline in their mental health since the pandemic started, with emotional exhaustion, increased sadness, and irritability topping the list of self-reported symptoms.
According to a 2018 American Psychological Society report, younger generations are willing to seek mental health support (37% of Gen Z and 35% of millennials). These generations recognize mental health as something beyond “keep your chin up” platitudes and not only get help but are more willing to talk about it.
Advances in the mental health industry are changing how issues are diagnosed and treated. For example, precision psychiatry allows for mental health treatment based on a person’s environment, behaviors, and biology—treatment based on an individual, not a class of symptoms. With that bulls-eye focus, a person of color disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, a woman contemplating a job change due to COVID-19-related stressors, or an overwhelmed entrepreneur could get the targeted mental health support they need.
Precision psychiatry could also shift the mental health field from a reactive mode (e.g., treating depression when it’s already at “stage 4”) to a proactive mode, which could mean preventing issues before they arise. Even in the mental health arena, it’s still cheaper to prevent an issue than to fix it.
What Is Mental Health Coverage?
Mental health coverage is more than providing yoga classes or meditation apps. It needs to include affordable therapy options, appropriate PTO, and managers trained to support their employees.
Even for employees fortunate enough to have health insurance that covers therapy sessions, they may still face sticker shock—an in-office therapist visit is 5 times more likely to be out-of-network compared to a regular doctor visit. That’s not surprising given the WHO says, “Globally, there is less than 1 mental health professional for every 10,000 people.” Fortunately, telehealth is on the rise, affording potentially cheaper and more accessible virtual treatment options.
Employees should be reminded of privacy guarantees so they don’t skip mental health support in fear of retaliation from employers. Additionally, employees need ample paid time off to seek treatment, as well as to take regular vacations to reduce employee burnout.
Since managers and supervisors are first responders in a business, they should be trained to recognize and guide employees on mental health issues. Businesses should also recognize that good bosses can help protect employees’ well-being, just as a bad boss can cause mental health issues for employees.
Why Should Businesses Offer Mental Health Coverage?
Employers who offer comprehensive mental health coverage stand to benefit in a variety of ways, including lower insurance costs, attracting and retaining top-notch employees, and beefing up their CSR goals with a more in-depth diversity and inclusivity plan.
Mental Health Impacts Physical Health
The idea that mental health can impact one’s physical health isn’t new. For businesses providing self-insured healthcare, spending on mental health coverage may reduce the amount spent on physical health insurance costs.
Pandemic-related memes poke fun at changes in behaviors like people not social distancing from the refrigerator. No doubt stress and anxiety can cause a decrease in self-care activities like daily exercise and limiting pizza binges to once a week.
Researchers have found that mental health issues may predict the likelihood of physical diseases. The field of psychoneuroimmunology focuses on the link between the brain and the immune system, and scientists are developing guidelines on how mental health markers can be used to predict diseases such as cancer and diabetes. You read that right—the state of your mental health could be used to show the likelihood you will develop a physical health condition.
Additionally, the mental health impact of the coronavirus pandemic is expected to cause an increase in physical health issues. A WHO policy brief highlights the physical consequences of COVID-19, including the dreaded brain-fog and the potential impacts social distancing will have on “…brain health development in young children and adolescents and cognitive decline in the older population.” Once enough of the world’s population has been vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, there will still be mental and physical health fallouts to address.
Mental Health Coverage Is a Recruiting and Retention Tool
Many employees expect mental health coverage. One survey indicated that potential employees consider corporate wellness initiatives and “on-demand mental health support” the top 2 benefits when reviewing a job offer. In other words, free drinks aren’t cutting it anymore.
And a lack of mental health support causes employees to quit. A Mind Share Partners survey showed that 20% of all respondents had left a job due to mental health reasons—that percentage was even higher among millennials (50%) and GenZ (75%).
Mental Health Support Can Support D&I Goals
A summary of the Mind Share Partners report says, “…almost half of Black and Latinx respondents had left a job at least partly for mental health reasons, compared with 32% of Caucasian respondents.” That implies your diversity goals are at risk if your business doesn’t provide mental health support.
Garen Staglin, cofounder and chairman of One Mind at Work, says there is a correlation between mental health support and diversity initiatives as employees from diverse backgrounds can face a myriad of stressors that impact their “…mental health and psychological safety at work.” Thus, supporting employees of color, including mental health support, is key to diversity and inclusivity goals.
If you still aren’t convinced, remember that many potential buyers evaluate a business’s corporate social responsibility before spending money with them. If D&I numbers aren’t where they need to be, consumers will likely shop elsewhere.
Big businesses are recognizing the need for mental health support for their employees. For example, Starbucks announced in April that employees working 20 hours or more would be able to access 20 sessions a year with a mental health therapist or coach at no cost to the employee.
While small businesses are unlikely to be able to offer that same level of mental health coverage, it’s important to support your employee’s mental health in every way you can for the sake of their health and your business’s financial and ethical health.