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How to Encourage Employees to Use Mental Health Benefits

Many still are mystified by employee assistance programs and other services

Two women sitting on chairs and talking to each other.

Employers can do better when it comes to educating employees about using the mental health resources available to them—a message that is especially important given the increased stress employees are facing due to the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, HR advisors say.

As employees choose their benefits for the upcoming year during open enrollment season and take time to reflect on the year ahead during the holidays, they may be receptive to communication about underutilized mental health benefits.

Demystify EAP Offerings

"Communicating about what benefits are offered and how they can be used is the first step," said Kara Hoogensen, senior vice president of specialty benefits at Principal, a global financial investment management and insurance company.

Employers can highlight how employee assistance programs (EAPs) work by providing examples of the types of support EAPs offer and the value they can provide, as well as describing how they can be used, she said.

"Often, employees think these services are only available for crisis situations," Hoogensen noted. "However, EAP benefits can help employees navigate stress and anxiety about general concerns they encounter, such as work/life balance, paying bills or health issues. It's also important to emphasize the confidential nature of mental health programs accessed through an EAP so employees feel more comfortable using them."

Despite growing concerns about mental health and increased interest in mental health resources, EAPs remain unfamiliar to many employees.

"Some aren't even aware they have access to these benefits," Hoogensen said. "Communicating often about EAPs and other benefits—whether that's through digital and mobile channels, or otherwise—keeps the conversation going. Keeping a continuous pulse on employee sentiment through surveys and one-on-one meetings with managers helps, too."

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Mental Health

Retaining Workers

HR consultancy Mercer's 2021 Health on Demand report, based on a global survey of 14,000 employees conducted earlier this year, shows that:

  • 42 percent of employees with access to mental health benefits said they're more likely to stay at their current organization than if they didn't have those resources.
  • 44 percent of those without access to mental health benefits said they do not feel supported by their employers.

Looking at the U.S., where 2,000 workers were surveyed:

  • 59 percent of employees said they feel some level of stress, and one-quarter report being highly or extremely stressed—the highest percentage among the 13 countries included in the survey.
  • 48 percent of employees rated employer support for mental health as highly or extremely valuable.
  • However, 40 percent of employees said it is difficult to find and access quality mental health care. Among low-wage earners, that number rises to 47 percent.

The ability to access mental health care virtually—including virtual visits with a counselor or therapist and digital support tools and resources—has become a valued option for many employees, Mercer reported.

"With significant shifts in attitudes toward mental health sustainability and digital health care over the last year, employers must evolve their health strategy to reflect a modern workforce that prioritizes flexibility, choice, a caring culture and digital access to support their health and well-being," said Kate Brown, leader of Mercer's Center for Health Innovation.

Prevalent Conditions

In another mental health survey, 91 percent of 421 total rewards professionals at large North American organizations said mental health and substance-use disorder challenges among workers had increased during the pandemic.

Those findings were reported by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) in its Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Benefits: 2021 Survey Results report.

"Mental well-being was a big challenge before the COVID-19 pandemic, and concern is only growing as our worker populations deal with the continual unknowns of the pandemic," said Julie Stich, CEBS, vice president of content at the IFEBP. "Employers are working to effectively connect with and provide benefits for employees, from offering more digital tools to facilitating peer-support groups to expanding mental-health-crisis training initiatives."

The specific mental health benefits growing in popularity include access to online resources and tools (offered by 87 percent of respondents) and telepsychiatry treatment sessions (72 percent).

When asked about the prevalence of several mental health/substance-use disorders, the top five (either "very" or "prevalent") conditions employers reported, based on aggregated data, were:

  • Depression (52 percent).
  • Anxiety disorders (49 percent).
  • Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders (32 percent).
  • Attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (23 percent).
  • Alcohol addiction (17 percent).

Related SHRM Articles:

Don't Let Mental Health Support Weaken Post-Pandemic, SHRM Online, November 2021

Mental Health Parity: Don't Get Left Out in the Cold, SHRM Online, December 2021

Supporting Mental Health in the Post-Pandemic Workplace, SHRM Online, May 2021


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