Is Workplace Mental Health the Next Big Employee Benefit?

workplace mental health


“Is it just me or have others felt a dark cloud following them the last few months?” That’s the opening line of an article published by Amy Otto, VirtualMed Staff’s Director of Customer Experience, in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. A mother of two with a loving husband and an active pre-pandemic social life, Amy felt the way many Americans felt in 2020 and still feel today – isolated, lonely, burned out, anxious and depressed.

Amy isn’t alone.

The coronavirus pandemic revealed a glaring truth in America: mental health issues are pervasive. In a recent poll from the Pew Research, 73% of Americans reported feeling anxious at least a few days a week since the onset of the pandemic. Even more so, during the week of March 15, when stay-at-home orders became pervasive, 78% of all antidepressants, antianxiety, and anti-insomnia prescriptions filled were new (versus refills).

As we enter another year with the pandemic, mental health issues are skyrocketing. Based on analysis by McKinsey, COVID-19 could result in a potential 50% increase in the prevalence of behavioral health conditions. Similarly, a study by Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 45% of Americans felt the COVID-19 crisis is harming mental health; while 19% felt it was having a “major impact”.

Despite these statistics, there is light at the end of the tunnel as employers take an active role in providing access to mental health resources. Here’s why workplace mental health is a vital employee benefit in 2021 and beyond.

The costly impact of not addressing workplace mental health

The U.S. economy loses nearly $210 billion annually due to depression, anxiety, and other mental health illnesses. This figure includes both direct costs to employers and indirect costs.

Direct costs: Increased healthcare costs

The simple truth is that by starting treatment with the brain, companies can expect to see a tangible impact on the overall health of their workforce and reduce direct healthcare costs.

Depression and stress foretell other costly illnesses, co-morbidities, and increases the likelihood of engaging in poor health habits. For instance, individuals suffering from depression are more likely to eat poorly, neglect exercise, and consume alcohol in excess. This type of unhealthy behavior can cost companies millions, with 1 in 4 dollars employers paid for healthcare tied to unhealthy lifestyle choices.  

Similarly, studies have found a direct link between depression and many other chronic conditions like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease which all lead to expensive healthcare claims. In fact, depression is the top reason employees file short-term disability claims.

However, these are just the direct costs. Indirect costs can have an even greater impact.  

Indirect costs: Decreased productivity, recruitment and employee retention   

Much of the $210 billion economic burden associated with depression relates to a decrease in productivity and missed workdays, with anxiety leading to an average of 4.6 lost workdays per month.

The coronavirus pandemic negatively impacted productivity even further. Nearly 25% of managers’ report losing 3-4 hours of production per day due to COVID stress. A survey by the Center for Workplace Health found that 78% of respondents say the pandemic negatively affected their mental health, with 85% stating their mental health issues are causing sleep deprivation, poor physical health, and more.

Additionally, employees are actively seeking companies that offer workplace mental health access during the job search process. When evaluating the benefits of a new job offer, on-demand mental health support and corporate wellness initiatives are at the top of the list of benefits they are looking for in an employer.

The financial impact of untreated mental health issues in the workforce cannot be understated. Fortunately, employers are taking strides to improve workplace mental health access, but there is still room to grow.

The current state of workplace mental health  

Historically, there was a stigma around discussing mental health issues, but that has begun to change. Particularly in young adults, who, despite being more likely to have mental health issues, are more willing to talk openly about psychological well-being and to seek assistance.

The coronavirus has also shifted the conversation around workplace mental health access significantly. In a survey of 256 employers, 53% reported providing special emotional and mental health programs for their workforce because of the pandemic. Starbucks, for example, now provides 20 free counselling sessions a year for employees and their families. PwC, one of the Big Four accounting firms, offers well-being coaches to employees.

Despite the progress being made, access to mental health resources is scarce. The few providers that may be considered “in-network” on an employee’s health plan have waiting lists of 2 to 3 months for an appointment.

With access to mental health resources at an affordable cost still a pressing need, what are some immediate next steps that employers can take to help their employees?

Improving workplace mental health access

Mental health is a challenge, not a weakness. Creating a workforce culture that embraces and accepts mental health issues can make a significant impact on the overall well-being of employees, reduce company spending on direct costs like healthcare expenses, and address indirect costs like decreased productivity due to absenteeism.

One solution to increase openness, transparency, and access to mental health resources is with custom created telebehavioral health programs offered through the workplace.

As Amy Otto states, “People spend most of their lives in the workplace and it’s where mental health resources make the biggest impact – not only in terms of culture but also in ROI.” Improving workplace mental health takes leadership that only employers can provide. Starting with affordable onsite resources that offer convenient and affordable access is a first step.

Yes, the pandemic will not last forever, but the post-pandemic stress will persist. Investing in your employees now means investing in their overall health, starting with mental health. VirtualMed Staff custom creates affordable telemedicine programs for employers, hospitals, and clinics to improve access to care.

Let’s get started today and make workplace mental health the biggest benefit employees look for in 2021 and beyond.