May 18, 2021
State of Mental Health in the Workplace
by Mark Walls and Kimberly George
As work from home continued, employers became even more aware of the impact of mental health and well-being.
Discussions around the impact of mental health and well-being in the workplace are frequent Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark topics. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so we are offering our thoughts on the current state of mental health in the workplace.
Even before the pandemic, benefits managers were adapting employee benefits to better equip employees and plan members with mental health resources. However, as the work from home assignments continued and social isolation set in, employers became even more aware of the impact of mental health and well-being on productivity, absence and performance. With a greater emphasis on employee well-being, we hope programs initiated during the pandemic will continue to support improved access to care and will break down the stigma related to mental health.
Employers took advantage of employee resource groups (ERGs), either existing or newly implemented, to foster peer interaction, open conversation and joint problem-solving related to issues that have an impact on their personal and professional lives because of the pandemic. Group collaborations focused on important topics at that time with employees, such as home school successes, caring for an ill family member, loneliness and depression, challenges with family and positivity sharing, to name a few. Many found the sessions to be an excellent way to bring positivity and support into their life and provide a break from the hectic pace of working at home. As companies create back-to-office and hybrid workforce models, ERGs continue to be a priority to ensure all who want to can participate.
Access to care has been a long-standing challenge for those seeking mental health care. Reimbursement rates, timely appointments and limited provider options are some of the issues the industry is working to solve. Previously, while telehealth visits were growing for triage of minor medical and follow-up appointments, there was slow adoption for teletherapy and telepsychiatry. Fortunately, telemedicine was a saving grace for many aspects of healthcare during the pandemic, and mental health care saw a boon. Employers and network partners are now offering multiple options for telemedicine and improved coordination between employee assistance programs (EAPs) and online therapy platforms for mental health care. Phone calls, video conferencing and texting are becoming an integral part of the therapist-patient relationship. With less social connection, this has found success for many in the workforce — and their families. Organizations are now offering various programs, including adult, family and teen counseling.
The Center for Workplace Mental Health is an important resource for all employers. The entirety of its work focuses on helping employers create a more supportive work environment and advance health policies at their organization. They have created a mental health toolkit for Mental Health Awareness Month, which includes topics such as promoting resiliency for people and the organization; promoting self-care; and addressing isolation and loneliness. These programs (and others) can be easily integrated into your company culture to reduce stigma, promote well-being and provide an environment where employees and leaders both care and thrive.
See also: The Long Haul for Mental Health at Work
From a workers’ compensation claims perspective, mental health has always been a complication lurking in the background. The industry tended to ignore the issue because of a combination of stigma and outright resistance. Claims where the injured workers never fully recovered probably had a significant untreated mental health component. Thankfully, that is changing; it is now widely recognized that all chronic pain has a significant mental health component, and, if you fail to address this, it will increase claims cost and lead to poorer outcomes. Multidisciplinary pain management programs now spend as much time on mental health as they do physical health.
Laws are also changing to make it easier to pursue psychological injuries under workers’ compensation. More states are allowing “mental-mental” claims, which are psychological injuries with no physical injuries. In addition, one of the leading workers’ compensation legislative initiatives for several years has been the expansion of first responder presumption laws, which are primarily focused on post-traumatic stress. In the past, the threshold for a mental health injury was a “usual and extraordinary” experience. That threshold was used to deny very real traumatic situations that first responders encounter because the situations were “usual” aspects of their job. While these traumatic situations may have been expected, there is nothing ordinary about responding to severe accident scenes, seeing your partner shot or having someone die in your arms. In certain ways, public entities created the path to these presumption laws by denying such claims rather than focusing on getting the injured worker the treatment they needed. Public entity employers are now reporting that they are seeing an increasing number of PTSD claims with no corresponding physical injuries being filed under workers’ compensation.