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Putting Concern into Action: A Guide to Advanced Mental Health Benefits at Work

Organizations are at a crossroads regarding mental health support in the workplace. Many organizations identify mental health as a major priority, and benefits supporting workplace mental health have gone from standout benefits to expected ones. But at the same time, mental health challenges in the workplace persist. Over half of workers still feel “used up” at the end of the workday, and more than two in five feel burned out from work, according to SHRM’s Employee Mental Health in 2024 research.


Organizations could continue with a typical approach to mental health benefits, but it might eventually lead to employee attrition and poor candidate attraction. SHRM data shows that workers who are burned out from work are nearly three times more likely to be actively searching for another job.


The challenge of improving workplace mental health presents an opportunity for organizations that are willing to advance their approach to mental health benefits. Innovative approaches to supporting mental health can enhance productivity, increase engagement, and create a competitive differentiator for attracting top talent. This guide will explore how to improve an organization’s mental health offerings, upgrade participation strategies, and maximize the impact of mental health benefits.


An advanced look at mental health benefits


Mental health benefits have come a long way, but they still have a ways to go. In 2023, SHRM benefits data found that 89% of organizations offered mental health coverage. However, 59% of US workers say their organization provides too few resources to support their mental health.


A standard package of mental health benefits has emerged, according to Jae Kullar, global head of benefits, health services, and well-being at AGCO Corporation. A basic mental health benefits package should include access to:

●      Therapy and counseling.

●      Psychiatric medication coverage.

●      Digital mental health tools to support preventive care and acute intervention.


But that’s just a start. When workers were asked about the benefits that best support their mental health, nearly two in five selected mental health days, yet less than one in five employers offer designated paid mental health days apart from regular sick time, according to SHRM benefits data. A lack of psychological safety can also make the benefit feel inaccessible, even for companies that do provide mental health days.


SHRM research also finds that workers say flexible scheduling could support their mental health. Flexible schedules aren’t just about managing workloads or skipping commutes, though. Many employees are overburdened with a lack of child care or help caring for aging parents, and flexible schedules help them better juggle multiple responsibilities without overextending themselves.


But even these benefits (mental health coverage, mental health days, and flexible schedules) are just the beginning. Companies genuinely dedicated to promoting the mental health of their employees won’t stop there.


More advanced mental health benefits to consider:


●      Sabbaticals. Sabbaticals are extended breaks from work, set apart from typical paid leave, that are typically offered to workers who have been in their role for many years. SHRM benefits data finds that less than one in 10 employers currently offer sabbaticals, even though experts say they can reduce burnout and stress.

●      Targeted benefits. Some benefits help workers address other health concerns that can directly impact their mental health, such as menopause and obesity. SHRM’s benefits research shows increased coverage for weight loss surgery and programs, which is noteworthy given that people who are overweight and people with obesity are at a higher risk of developing a mental illness.

●      AI-supported wellness tools. The global AI mental health market is expected to be worth around $10.2 million by 2032, and benefits such as AI-driven employee assistance programs (EAPs) and AI-powered burnout detection are growing in popularity.

●      On-site or in-house therapists. Organizations that brought on in-house executive coaches were once ahead of the pack. Now, organizations that invest in on-site therapists are leading the way.

●      Well-being rooms. As nine in 10 workplaces plan to require employees to return to the office to some degree, more companies are creating wellness rooms that give employees a safe place to escape work-related stressors.

●      Wearables. Many wearable electronics companies are now offering workplace solutions, as research has found that wearables can enable employees to track and improve their physical and mental health—and can also enhance communication, collaboration, and efficiency in the workplace.

Before introducing new benefits, assess your current benefits and workforce needs to ensure you’re actually adding value. Understanding utilization, employee stressors, and obstacles through surveys, focus groups, or one-on-one interviews will ensure that benefits reflect employee needs and are more likely to be embraced, says Kullar. Plus, you may find that existing benefits adequately cover employees’ needs but that you need to increase their accessibility, re-educate employees about them, or provide them in different formats.

Improving mental health benefit participation 

Once an organization has set its benefit lineup, communicating benefit offerings effectively is the next step.

This step is not to be taken lightly or breezed through. According to SHRM’s Employee Mental Health in 2024 research, 67% of workers are unaware or only somewhat aware of the mental health resources their organization offers. When workers are aware, they are 10 percentage points (46% versus 36%) more likely to say they would not leave their current job for a new job with better mental health benefits than workers who are unaware.

Communication shouldn’t be limited to new benefits. Reach out periodically to re-educate employees about existing benefits, too. The following strategies can help you maintain continuous communication while bolstering participation.

One method is taking a community-focused approach by introducing a peer-led support group or mental health ambassador program with volunteers who are naturally inclined to promote mental health. Consider having volunteers from various departments to increase inclusivity, as each team may have different stressors and busy periods and find varying benefits from a mental health tool.

What shouldn’t be voluntary is mental health training for people managers. “Managers must know exactly how to support their team without becoming clinicians or therapists,” says Bhavik Shah, an award-winning culture change strategist. Shah adds that the goal of training isn’t to replace therapy but to create awareness of what resources are available and how to access them. Training helps managers realize whether employees need support with their workloads and teaches them how to effectively support someone experiencing a mental health episode.

Training can help leaders build awareness, reduce stigma, enhance psychological safety, and create opportunities to model positive mental health practices. It’s particularly conducive for leaders to talk about mental health because “it lets employees know that you too, even from a senior position, trust the resources and the benefits that the company is offering, providing a level of connection and safety for the employee,” explains Shah.

This is especially crucial given that data shows workers whose managers have a negative impact on their mental health are two times less likely to say they believe in the mission of their organization, and less than half (44%) say their senior leadership models good mental health practices, according to SHRM’s Employee Mental Health in 2024 research.

Organizations must also remove logistical and cultural barriers to accessing mental health benefits. Such benefits need to be a part of employees’ daily lives, and people must feel safe using them. Shah points to how some employers introduce shiny new benefits, but then employees still have managers calling them at midnight, questioning their time off, and making it difficult for them to shape their schedules to accommodate things such as medical appointments. “You can offer the most glamorous resources in the world, but if people don’t feel psychologically safe, it won’t work,” Shah warns.

The only way to discover your employees’ obstacles is to ask them in a psychologically safe environment where they feel comfortable being honest.

More strategies to amp up mental health benefit participation:

  • Start with pilot programs. Kullar says pilots allow you to test new benefits and establish regular feedback mechanisms to refine and adjust policies.
  • Share mental health benefit stories to reduce stigma. Outside of support groups, you can do this through company newsletters, town halls, and social media.
  • Reward benefit participation. Whether it’s incentives for engaging with mental health programs or other recognition, show employees you value their involvement.
  • Consolidate vendors. Option overload is real. Consider consolidating your mental health benefits to prevent decision fatigue among employees.

Find strategic partners within the organization to implement mental health initiatives, instead of putting all of the above on HR teams. Currently, 77% of HR professionals often feel caught in the middle of the strategic vision set by leadership and the practical realities employees face, according to SHRM’s Employee Mental Health in 2024 research. Shah suggests bringing in leaders to co-create these solutions, rather than keeping HR in a silo. This can unify leadership’s vision and provide a bridge between HR and the broader employee population.

Measuring the effectiveness of advanced mental health benefits

You can introduce all the right benefits and implement all the right engagement strategies, but if you don’t measure the impact—and act on the data—it could all be for naught.

Where do you start? Start with tracking. Monitor how frequently employees use mental health benefits and regularly solicit feedback, says Kullar, who also suggests monitoring:

  • Mental health claims.
  • Absenteeism.
  • Productivity.
  • Employee satisfaction.
  • Retention rates.

Taken together, these data points allow organizations to measure the success of mental health policies directly and indirectly and reflect on their broader impact in the workplace.

You can use these numbers to adjust benefits so employees get the most value from them—and so you get the biggest return on investment. You can also use data to get leadership buy-in. When internal data isn’t enough to sway other leaders, fold in external research to support your own findings.

Go a step further by gathering context for your data. This is where focus groups, interviews, and mental health ambassadors can be beneficial. As an example, consider how organizations handle tracking vacation days. Say an employee gets to the middle of December without using any of their paid time off for the year. Rather than sending a generic nudge to remind them to take their days, talk to them about what got them to that point. What prevented them from feeling like they could take a vacation for over 300 days? Use that context to adjust your policies.

From there, stay committed and tell employees about your commitments. Share findings from data and interviews, highlights, and what’s stopping you from making certain adjustments—now or in the future. Don’t just say you care; put that concern into action. While 73% of workers report that their organization says it cares about employee mental health, 46% of these workers say their organization’s actions say otherwise, according to SHRM’s Employee Mental Health in 2024 research.

Of course, there will always be things outside of your control, especially now with inflation and a heavier burden to show ROI. While you can’t control external factors, Shah urges leaders not to stop mental health benefits when it becomes harder to maintain or implement progress in a challenging economy.

“Strong culture is when things get hard, and you're still able to keep the promises and commitments you've made,” says Shah. “Think of the legacy you want your company to have, to leave. One that provides benefits only when it’s easy? Or one that offers benefits when times are hard and when people need benefits the most?”

Remember that while benefits might cost you, losing employees by not offering them what they need will cost you even more. In the last five years, 27% of U.S. workers have left a job for one that has a better work culture to protect their well-being, and 22% have even left a job without having another one lined up, according to SHRM’s Employee Mental Health in 2024 research.

What about the well-being of your organization’s leadership? Are your executives feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or exhausted? Deloitte found that more than one in three executives report feeling all these things. Remember that improving organizational mental health has to include protecting the mental health of leadership to show others the way.

The Takeaway

“At the end of the day, employers are not there to solve people’s mental health struggles,” says Shah. “But they can set them up for success through benefits and changes in workstyles.” And that means success for the business, too.

“Employees in good mental health are more focused, creative, and less prone to absenteeism,” explains Kullar. In addition, “robust mental health support also fosters a more inclusive and supportive workplace culture that enhances employee retention and attracts top talent.”

Remember to do the following as you start advancing your approach to mental health benefits:

  • Assess your employees’ mental health benefit needs and think beyond traditional offerings.
  • Reduce barriers by ensuring your workplace is psychologically safe and that benefits are available, accessible, and effectively communicated.
  • Amplify participation by folding mental health into everyday operations, with executives leading the way.
  • Track mental health benefits data and then adjust your efforts as needed to improve engagement.

When benefits are designed with well-being in mind, it becomes possible to build a workplace that not only protects but enhances everyone’s mental health.


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