How to Meet Employees’ Growing Need for Mental Health Benefits With Traditional and Emerging Solutions

Will I be able to provide for my family? When will life get back to normal? What happens if … ?

A year of forced shutdowns and stay-at-home orders caused most Americans to ask these questions almost daily. Compounded by pandemic-driven loneliness and isolation, anxiety and depression levels are at all-time highs. The 2021 State of Mental Health in America report captured this rise in mental health concerns across the nation with data showing that 47.1 million (19 percent) of adults in the United States now live with a mental health condition, an increase of 1.5 million over the previous year.

Significantly increased suicide rates, elevated domestic violence cases and consumers taking more medications to treat mental health conditions all point to a mental health pandemic secondary to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are significant concerns about the long-term effects of this crisis on the overall health of the nation. So, as we continue to fight COVID-19, roll out vaccines and hope to resume life as we knew it, leaders must ask what can be done to address mental health issues. Can we rely on traditional offerings, or should we look more at emerging solutions and voluntary options?

Start by Expanding Mental Health Care Coverage

The simple answer is all solutions should be available. The reality, however, is that this is an area of benefits with many complexities.

Mental health benefits are included within an employee’s traditional medical insurance plan. Additionally, the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA) generally prevents group health plans and health insurance issuers that provide mental health or substance use disorder benefits from imposing less-favorable limitations on those benefits than on medical or surgical benefits. One example of what this means is that if an employee’s insurance plan covers two primary care physician office visits each year, their plan must also cover two visits to a therapist each year.

Prior to enactment of the Affordable Care Act, this did not hold true for small group plans. Now, access to mental health services within individual, small group fully insured, and Medicaid plans is mandated and guaranteed as one of the 10 essential health benefits. The ACA applied MHPAEA parity requirements to all health plans and also required all plans to cover preventive services such as mental health screenings at no cost to the patient.

Mental health coverage gaps still exist in large and small group plans, however. Both types of plans could be strengthened by offering additional, possibly voluntary, benefits that support the overall mental health of the workforce.

Focus on Telehealth, EAPs and Apps

A big shift brough about by the pandemic has been the ability to access mental health professionals and treatment via telehealth. This can be made available through a medical plan as an additional employee benefit or on a voluntary or individual basis. For some people, having this option allows them to address their mental health for the first time, given the ease of access and nonthreatening setting. We can chalk this up as one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic, and this new way of interacting virtually with health care providers is likely here to stay.

Offering employee assistance programs (EAPs) is another way employers can help meet the mental health needs of the workforce. An EAP gives employees access to free, confidential counseling services on a broad and complex number of issues that affect mental and emotional well-being, such as alcohol and other substance abuse, stress, grief, family problems and psychological disorders. Often, an EAP is made available through another offered employee benefit, such as life insurance. An employer can also purchase an EAP on a standalone basis.

Last, a growing number of mental health tools are directly available to support people’s needs. Options include evidence-based behavioral change programs that empower people to feel more confident and optimistic, guidance on finding high-quality affordable health care and virtual therapy and psychiatric care through users’ smartphones.

Rethink Mental Health Benefits for Your Employees

Employers benefit from a fully engaged workforce and employees who can be present, perform at a high level and be highly productive. Those attributes are often determined by employees’ mental health.

When conditions are left untreated, work performance suffers. Mental health is also directly correlated to one’s overall physical health, which can deteriorate when a person is struggling mentally. By supporting their workforce’s mental well-being, employers drive down the overall cost of health care and, likely, improve the overall performance of the organization.

To determine what types of mental health support are best for your organization, consider the following:

  • How are employees currently supported in terms of their mental health? Is the existing support and access enough?
  • What options are currently available through the benefits package? Is there an awareness of these benefits, or are promotion and education required?
  • Could the demographics of the workforce or the nature of the work employees do influence their needs for mental health care services?
  • How have employees’ needs changed during the pandemic?

Promoting mental health is not a new concern, but the pandemic has pushed it to the forefront and created a greater need for solutions. In fact, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed in March includes $3.5 billion for block grants to fund efforts aimed at addressing mental health and substance use disorders.

As we watch to see how states use those funds and what other relief efforts may roll out this year, employers should immediately consider a multipronged approach to supporting their workforce that includes traditional medical insurance, wellness offerings, EAPs, voluntary benefits and emerging solutions such as apps. The keys are to listen to employees, analyze what is being offered and determine the right balance of traditional and innovative benefits to offer to help and support an engaged, productive and, ultimately, healthy workforce.

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