Mental Health Apps Offer New Ways to Support Employees

Technology provides an informal and accessible route to counseling

By Joanne Sammer May 12, 2020
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woman using app for teleheatlh counseling

Mental health issues have long been a concern for employers. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic creates new challenges and changes in employees' work and personal lives, many need even more mental health support.

Client data compiled by ExpressScripts, a pharmacy benefit management firm, found that prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications rose 34.1 percent from mid-February to mid-March 2020. During the week ending March 15, when some states and localities began issuing stay-at-home and social-distancing orders, 78 percent of all antidepressant, anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia prescriptions filled were for new prescriptions.

Employers are recognizing the toll recent events continue to take on their employees. A Willis Towers Watson survey of more than 200 employers found that 64 percent expect their employees to be feeling higher-than-normal levels of stress and anxiety over the next three to six months and 60 percent expect to take steps to help employees remain resilient.

Connecting employees, when they need help, with trained mental health practitioners and experts is critically important now. "People are dealing with many different problems—loneliness, insomnia, relationship issues, grief caused by the loss of normalcy, freedom and joy," said LuAnn Heinen, vice president with the Business Group on Health in Washington, D.C.

Employer health plans provide access to mental health care and practitioners, and mental health apps can be part of the overall offering. It's important to note, however, that such apps are meant to supplement those resources, not replace them. "Apps can be most helpful when it comes to mitigating three key barriers to mental health care—cost, access and stigma," Heinen said. If one or all of these barriers are discouraging employees from seeking help, then an app can become even more important.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19 Resources

Supporting Employees and Managers

When California issued its stay-at-home order in the middle of March, the HR department at San Manuel Casino in Highland, Calif., got a call from its employee assistance program (EAP) vendor offering a mental health app to supplement its traditional EAP services.

"A large percentage of our employees are working from home, so the app is designed to make it easier to select and communicate with" mental health providers online, said Brigitte Saria, chief people and infrastructure officer.

Saria expects the app to provide a less formal and more accessible route to mental health resources than traditional face-to-face counseling. "It can make the difference between employees seeking help when they need it or not doing so," she said.

So far, the app is not only helping employees find mental health resources, it is also reducing the burden on managers who see employees struggling with emotional and mental health issues. Remote work, homeschooling children, financial worries and concerns about the future can upend even the most consistent workers and their performance. "These issues are not necessarily work-related, and managers are not trained to deal with them," Saria said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Assistance Programs]

Choosing an App

Not all mental health apps will be appropriate for all employees. Some help to evaluate and link users with tools and therapy through a provider network or give access to an EAP. Others focus on niche health concerns and support individuals seeking to change their behavior, get better-quality sleep, or increase their resilience or level of happiness.

"How applicable is the resource to your unique population?" asked Emily Brainerd, well-being and engagement practice leader for insurance firm Gallagher's benefits and HR consulting division in Minneapolis. "Who are you trying to reach and is the resource an effective, efficient, user-friendly and convenient way to reach them?"

She suggested that employers ask app providers for references from organizations with similar employee demographics (based on workers' age, geographic location, gender, job type, etc.) to get a better idea of how likely the app is to resonate with employees.

Brainerd also noted the importance of evaluating an app's features, such as:

  • Security measures.
  • Developer credentials and advisors.
  • Pricing options and service fees.
  • Performance guarantee options.
  • Success metrics.
  • Account management support.
  • Communication tools.

"How will the app provider help your employees and how will it help you as a partner?" she asked.

Another consideration is how well an app supports users as they move through the stages of care, including obtaining a diagnosis and treatment plan, then working toward self-monitoring and self-management over time.

From there, employers can consider whether they want or need the app to integrate into their broader benefits offering. If so, employers can look for enterprise-grade apps that meet defined standards for analytics, security, global capabilities and customer support.

"Employers should also consider applications that offer a personalized experience, and which offer routing to additional services already in your HR ecosystem," said Pam Boiros, chief marketing officer for meQuilibrium, which leverages technology to help employers increase workforce resilience.

Measuring Impact

Of course, any mental health app is only worth using if it helps employees improve their mental health. Heinen recommended that employers track user experiences and outcomes to make sure use of the app is having a positive effect.

"Like physical health, mental health requires hands-on care in certain cases," she said. "Some mental health conditions can't be evaluated or resolved through virtual care."


Guide Helps Employers Compare Mental Health Apps

A new guide, Digital Tools and Solutions for Mental Health, developed by the Northeast Business Group on Health (NEBGH) and One Mind PsyberGuide, provides HR and benefits leaders with information to navigate through the maze of mental health apps.

"Digital technologies have the potential to revolutionize treatment for mental health conditions," said Mark Cunningham-Hill, medical director at NEBGH, an employer-led coalition. "These solutions can provide valuable new services that make mental health support more accessible and reduce barriers due to stigma."

He added, "With the country now in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic, the value of these tools that provide virtual solutions has increased exponentially."

The guide lists two dozen mental health apps and their key features, including what conditions each tool targets (such as stress, depression, anxiety) and the types of intervention it offers (such as coaching, mindfulness meditation, clinical therapy).

It has a checklist of key considerations for employers when evaluating and selecting a digital mental health solution, and features case studies of four major employers that have been using mental health apps for their employees.


Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.


Related SHRM Articles:

Help Alleviate the Anxieties of Employees Working from Home, SHRM Online, April 2020

Employers' Dream of Controlling Health Costs Turns to Workers' Sleep, SHRM Online, February 2020

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