Mental Health Support Begins by Recognizing the Need

At 61% of workplaces, depression is prevalent; anxiety, addiction also take toll

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS December 30, 2016
Mental Health Support Begins by Recognizing the Need

Employers are evolving their mental health support benefits to help prevent and treat prescription drug abuse and to meet other challenges that can effect workplace performance, including depression and anxiety, new research finds. 

According to Mental Health and Substance Abuse: 2016 Survey Results from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) in Brookfield, Wis., 93 percent of North American employers offer some sort of mental health/substance abuse benefits, and survey results show that this support is needed:

  • 94 percent of organizations reported that their workforces are stressed.
  • 61 percent said depression is prevalent in their organization.
  • 67 percent believe that substance abuse challenges are greater now than five years ago. 

In August 2016, IFEBP fielded a survey to a sampling of its 33,000 members—mostly corporate and public sector employers across the U.S. and Canada. The survey received 344 responses: 247 from U.S. respondents and 97 from Canadians.

Two in three respondents (68 percent) cited as greater prevalence of mental health/substance abuse challenges compared with five years ago.

Out of the 93 percent of organizations that offer mental health/substance abuse benefits:

  • 88 percent offer employee assistance programs (EAPs).
  • 40 percent offer wellness programs that include a mental health/substance abuse component.
  • 30 percent offer health risk assessments that include mental health/substance abuse questions.

"The first step for organizations to take is to assess the mental health issues that actually exist in their workplace, then create solutions based on the need," said Julie Stich, CEBS, associate vice president of content at IFEBP.

Organizations were asked how prevalent specific conditions are in their workplaces. In addition to the 61 percent that reported depression as prevalent, respondents also identified as top concerns:

  • Alcohol addiction (49 percent of respondents).
  • Anxiety disorders (49 percent).
  • Sleep deprivation (36 percent).
  • Prescription drug addiction (33 percent).
  • Nonprescription drug addiction (27 percent).

Employers based their responses on personal observations as well as on data from health claims, short- and long-term disability claims, prescription drug claims and absenteeism.

"According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, so it's especially important that organizations are starting to recognize its presence in the workplace," Stich said. Survey respondents predicted that an average of 12 percent of their organizational disability claims can be attributed to mental health/substance abuse issues.

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

Mental Health Treatment Options

Organizations that recognize the prevalence of mental health conditions in the workplace tend to offer these common treatment options:

  • Outpatient in-person treatment sessions with a medical professional or therapist (90 percent of respondents).
  • Prescription drug therapies (80 percent).
  • Inpatient hospital/clinic treatment (84 percent).

For employees who receive inpatient treatment, organizations offer a variety of return-to-work programs to ease the transition back to work. These most commonly include offsite and onsite case management programs and flexible work arrangements, such as shortened schedules and flexible start and stop times.

Even when organizations offer mental health benefits, however, employees don't always take advantage: 36 percent of the respondents noted that some workers do not acknowledge or are not ready to address their problems.

Prescription Drug Abuse: Prevention and Treatment

To combat prescription drug abuse, employers have implemented a number of initiatives including:

  • Requiring prior authorization of outpatient opioid prescriptions in excess of a specific number of days (43 percent of respondents).
  • Providing alternative pain management treatments (17 percent).
  • Offering a fraud tip hotline (8 percent).
  • Requiring written permission from a health care provider before a prescription is switched from an abuse-deterrent drug to one that is not (5 percent).
  • Monitoring hospital discharges to look for drug abuse events (5 percent).

Additionally, one in four employers (26 percent) conducted a prescription drug claims analysis to identify possible abuse, and nearly that many (24 percent) are considering a claims analysis.

"Addiction is not an easy problem for employers to tackle," explained Stich. "Employees who are struggling with substance abuse issues are often doing so in secret. They may fear that admitting a problem will cost them their job."

Employers are supporting workers who are dealing with substance abuse by providing a number of treatment options. Of organizations providing substance abuse treatment benefits, covered services include:

  • Outpatient in-person treatment sessions (89 percent of respondents).
  • Inpatient hospital or clinic treatment (85 percent).
  • Prescription drug therapies (67 percent).
  • Inpatient residential treatment centers (67 percent).
  • Outpatient telemedicine treatment services (55 percent).
  • Referrals to community services (41 percent).

Many employers also provide support through EAPs and wellness programs that include a substance abuse component.

"Substance abuse is costly for employers—reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and disability claims, and increased prescription drug and medical expenses add up to have a significant impact on an employer's bottom line," said Stich. "Taking measures to prevent and treat substance abuse is beneficial to an organization and possibly life-saving for employees and their families."

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