Improving the ROI of your Mental Health Benefits

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The World Health Organization began recognizing October 10th as World Mental Health Day in 1992, and for nearly 30 years, has used this day to highlight the reality that we all face mental health challenges in our daily lives. WHO was ahead of its time in working to destigmatize mental health challenges, and the theme of this year’s campaign – “Mental health care for all: let’s make it a reality” – seems designed to put stigmatization to rest once and for all.

The pandemic has taken a significant toll on our mental health. It’s inflicted unimaginable stress and disrupted many services that support mental, neurological and substance use disorders. But it’s also elevated awareness for these pervasive issues. As a result, business leaders are bolstering their benefits programs, and many organizations are taking steps to scale up their efforts at all levels.

A recent Business Group on Health survey revealed that nearly 90% of large employers accelerated initiatives to improve mental health services for their workers this year. While this shows a commitment to taking preventative action and prioritizing employee mental health, the problem is that these resources alone are not enough. For instance, 96% of businesses deploy traditional tools and wellness programs, but they have an average employee utilization rate of less than 10% per year.

In honor of the recent World Mental Health Day, it’s time for all employers to reevaluate their approach to mental health benefits to ensure they’re offering resources that truly help their team and ultimately improve their return on investment.

Understanding how to measure the success of your program

The ROI of mental health benefits is difficult to quantify. Businesses have traditionally evaluated the success and quality of their programs using metrics such as reduced absenteeism or the total number of benefit offerings. But this correlation is dubious. Multiple factors, including presenteeism; employees putting on a brave face while struggling through mental health challenges, can lead to reduced absenteeism. And counting benefit offerings is the best fit for quantity, not quality. Organizational leaders now understand that mental health and wellbeing programs are a necessity.

This shift has facilitated a new way to measure the ROI of mental health benefits: utilization. Mindshare Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report found that 76% of full-time workers experienced symptoms of a mental health condition. If more than seven out of every ten employees are struggling with mental health challenges yet only one of them is accessing support resources, the current benefits program is failing and driving increased costs for the organization. By evaluating the success of programs based on utilization, businesses can make informed decisions on which mental health and wellbeing benefits are providing the most value.

Improving utilization by destigmatizing mental health in the workplace

A key component to improving utilization is taking proactive steps to destigmatize mental health in the workplace. According to Kaiser Permanente, 8 out of 10 workers with a mental health condition say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking mental health care. When left untreated, these conditions cost companies billions every year. Business leaders can make talking about mental health challenges acceptable by leading initiatives and sharing their own struggles when appropriate. Opening meetings with videos on mental health is a great way to create a culture that doesn’t judge or shame mental health issues. Encouraging open, honest dialogue with employees empowers them to use support tools and makes it easier for those with a mental health condition to begin treatment.

The pandemic has amplified the public discussion surrounding mental health, creating an opportunity for employers to increase awareness of available resources and preventative solutions. Business leaders that seize this moment can strengthen their organizational culture by breaking the workplace silence and eliminating the stigma. This benefits both the individual and the company.

Don’t assume, listen

Discussing mental health fosters a deeper understanding of what’s impacting employees and allows businesses to tailor their offerings to address specific challenges. There is an important distinction to make between organizations that listen and those that assume. Companies that make assumptions continue to layer on benefits without identifying the issues facing their workforce. They expect employees will engage with new offerings but never consult with them and ultimately see minimal utilization. It’s a common, prescriptive shortcoming with organizational mental health and wellbeing programs that creates an onerous experience.

Listening is foundational to a successful mental health and wellbeing program because it helps employers learn what employees want and need. If you think that your employees are uncomfortable sharing their mental health struggles openly, conduct anonymous surveys to get a sense of how they feel. Organizations can then provide employees with resources they want to use. Importantly, organizations that listen can also refine their approach as employee challenges evolve. Mental health issues have changed drastically since the start of the pandemic, and they will continue to do so. It is imperative that organizations adapt service offerings to newly identified needs.

Reduce barriers to access

Listening also helps business leaders understand how social and cultural factors impact workers across many diverse groups. Research has shown that socioeconomic factors impact up to 80% of health outcomes and create barriers to access for support and resources. For example, health literacy is a social determinant of health that measures a person’s ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions. It’s important to recognize that not every employee interprets or absorbs information the same way, and many cannot utilize company resources through no fault of their own.

Organizations must be mindful of each person’s experiences and circumstances when selecting their benefits. Team members will not share the same point of view or comfort level on mental health topics, and approaching it as such will lead to unsuccessful outcomes. Resources should be confidential, have as many access points as possible, and meet employees where they are comfortable regardless of status or situation. The most effective support tools make it easy for a person to obtain, understand and process educational, mental health information.

Make mental health part of your business strategy

Mental health and wellbeing have long been a focus for human resource and benefits managers, but the past 18 months have made this a bigger concern at the board and executive level. The “Great Resignation” has been well documented, and its impact on business outcomes may reverberate for years to come. Research shows mental health and wellbeing support resources are a key differentiator for retaining top talent, and organizations that fail in this area are struggling to fill openings. In the future, these resources may even factor into the recruiting process. Employees are demonstrating they will leave a job with none in place if their employer is not meeting their needs.

The pandemic has caused many people to reconsider how they measure personal success, and mental health and wellbeing has supplanted the paycheck as the top indicator. It’s time for employers to do the same with their mental health benefits and support programs by identifying ways to improve utilization, drive engagement, and provide their people with the resources they need to live their best life personally and professionally. This approach will allow organizations around the world to make mental health care for all a reality.

Anna Mittag is vice president of operations for LifeSpeak, a digital wellness platform that offers employees 1,500 videos, podcasts, and tip sheets, available 24/7 from any computer or mobile device.