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Why Provide Better Mental Health Benefits? (Mental Health Awareness 2019)


Every 40 seconds, someone loses their life to suicide according to the World Health Organization. That’s 800,000 people every year. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds.

Suicides are preventable. One key element of preventing suicide is removing the stigma around mental health issues, so that people can seek help when they need it. That’s what World Mental Health Day, which takes place today, is all about: raising mental health awareness and encouraging people to take action. This year’s theme is “Working together to prevent suicide.”

In this tutorial, we’ll look at the role businesses can play in supporting the mental health of their employees. You’ll learn why this is such an important issue for businesses and what you can do to offer better mental health support in your company. We’ll also look at some examples of companies that are improving their mental health benefits.

The Importance of Mental Health Awareness for Businesses

There are several reasons why it’s important for businesses to look after the mental health of their employees.

First of all, there’s the simple reason of humanity. A company is a community, and your employees make great contributions to the health of your company, so it’s natural to want to look after their health in return.

But if you want cold, hard business logic, there’s plenty of that too.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“Depression is a major cause of disability, absenteeism, presenteeism, and productivity loss among working-age adults.”

The CDC goes on to give some stats:

  • In a given year, 18.8 million American adults (9.5% of the adult population) will suffer from a depressive illness.
  • In a 3-month period, patients with depression miss an average of 4.8 workdays and suffer 11.5 days of reduced productivity.
  • Depression is estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays each year, at a cost to employers of $17 to $44 billion.

It’s not just an American issue either. Globally, depression and anxiety cost the economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity, according to the World Health Organisation.

But treatment is effective, and it’s also cost-effective: the WHO says that every dollar invested in better mental health treatment results in a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.

So, by offering better mental health benefits, you can intervene to identify mental health issues early, to ensure that your workers get the treatment they need, and enjoy the payoff of having happier, healthier, more productive staff members.

How to Offer Better Mental Health Support

I hope the previous section has convinced you of the advantages of bringing awareness to mental health in your company and taking action to support it. But what can you actually do? Here are some ideas.

1. Provide Better Insurance Coverage

In countries like the U.S., where access to healthcare for many people depends on their employer’s health insurance plan, companies have a crucial role to play in helping people get the care they need.

A 2017 survey found that many insurers are skimping on mental health benefits. For example, mental health treatment was more likely to be provided out of network, meaning higher out-of-pocket costs for employees. Henry Harbin, former CEO of Magellan Health, told NPR:

“This is a wake-up call for employers, regulators and the plans themselves," Harbin says, "that whatever they're doing, they're making it difficult for consumers to get treatment for all these illnesses. They're failing miserably.”

If you provide health insurance to your employees, look into the details of the plan and examine its mental health provisions. Try to make sure that employees can access the care they need, without onerous conditions or high costs.

Employee counselling service
Make sure employees can access counselling. (Image source: Envato Elements)

2. Practise Early Intervention

Many countries, of course, have universal healthcare systems. So, employer insurance is less critical in those countries. But there’s still plenty that employers can do to support mental health in the workplace.

In the UK, for example, although mental health care is available from the free National Health Service, many employees are still reluctant to be open about mental health issues. One survey found that just 15% of employees would tell their line manager about a mental health issue. And UK employees take an average of 8.4 sick days each year due to poor mental health.

Employers can take the initiative by starting a conversation around mental health, helping to reduce the stigma around mental health and encourage employees to seek support. Try this excellent Talking Toolkit for detailed ideas on how to talk to workers to identify and prevent work-related stress.

3. Offer an Employee Assistance Program

An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is also a great way to support your employees by providing access to counselling services. See this tutorial for more details on EAPs and other programs to support mental health:

A separate issue, however, is the stigma attached to mental health, which may make employees reluctant to access an employer-sponsored program. See below for an example of how to deal with that.

4. Offer Bereavement Leave

Bereavement and grief can have serious consequences for a person’s mental health, so you want to do everything you can to support any employees going through this process.

One simple way to do this is through a bereavement leave policy. I’m sure you’d give an employee time off after the loss of a loved one anyway, so why not draw up a policy so that everyone knows how much time they can take either paid or unpaid.

The advantage of making it official is that you give people clarity in advance, and they've got one less thing to worry about at such a difficult time. Also follow these helpful guidelines in supporting employees through the grieving process and the return to work.

5. Work to Reduce Stress

Working life can be stressful, and stress can be a trigger for other mental health problems. As an employer, you can do your best to reduce that stress wherever possible.

Working life can be stressful
Try to reduce work-related stress for your employees. (Image source: Envato Elements)

You can do things like:

  • offering free yoga and meditation classes in the workplace
  • setting aside a room for quiet contemplation and relaxation
  • providing gym memberships or other incentives for physical activity

Wellness programs like this are popular with employees and effective at reducing stress. But don’t forget that stress can also be a result of things like:

  • unfair workload
  • excessive pressure for results
  • a highly competitive workplace culture
  • long working hours
  • an expectation of being constantly available by email and phone outside official working hours

If employees are stressed out by your toxic workplace culture, throwing in a free yoga class won’t help much. You need to take action to change the culture and encourage people to work in a way that reduces stress and supports everybody’s mental health. You can learn more about that here:

Examples of Companies With Good Mental Health Benefits

So now you’ve seen how to support your employees’ mental health in theory. But what does that look like in practice? Here are a few examples of companies that have taken steps to improve their mental health benefits for employees.

1. Unilever: Mental Health Training and Awareness Campaigns

Global consumer products firm Unilever has a global health initiative in place for all employees that includes a comprehensive program specifically tailored to mental health.

Unilever’s Chief Learning Officer, Tim Munden, told Huffington Post:

“If you want a high-performing company, you need resilient, healthy employees. We want our employees to have confidence to have a conversation about mental health. People are very reluctant to speak about it so we want to give people the space to talk about it.”

The program includes mental health training for managers and senior leaders, internal campaigns to raise awareness about mental illness, and regular employee workshops on sleep, mindfulness and exercise.

2. Starbucks: Going Beyond the EAP

Many companies have Employee Assistance Programs, where employees can take advantage of counselling and other forms of help. But because of the stigma around mental health and these programs’ close association with employers, many people are afraid to access the benefits they’re entitled to.

Starbucks recently announced a new initiative to deal with this very issue.

"We believe this is a societal problem and we want to take steps within Starbucks for our partners to break the stigma of mental health, acknowledge that it exists, and do some creative things to provide services to those in need,” said CEO Kevin Johnson.

That means that store managers and field leaders will be given "Mental Health Matters” sessions with clinical psychologists. The idea is to be more proactive about mental health, introducing concepts like emotional first aid and discussing ways to develop self-awareness. The program is too new to assess its results, but it’s a promising attempt to go beyond relying on the employee to make the first move and try instead to help raise awareness for mental health on a regular basis.

3. Lendlease: Days Off for Well-being

Construction firm Lendlease conducted a global health assessment in 2013, which revealed that 16% of employees were at high risk of developing depression and 9% experienced work-related stress.

Two years later, the company launched its Wellbeing Leave program, in which employees can take one day off every quarter to attend to their own mental health and wellbeing. The company also has a “Wellness Hub” at its headquarters, which provides a range of resources aimed at supporting employees’ wellbeing, including first aid training for mental health.

According to Dan Labbad, CEO International Operations:

“In any business, the wellbeing of workers should be paramount … What is comforting is the fact that treatment and care has an exponentially positive affect on those afflicted; often all it takes is for someone to reach out with an olive branch.”

Help Raise Awareness for Mental Health

In this tutorial, you’ve learned about the importance of mental health awareness for businesses. You’ve discovered how to provide better support for your employees’ mental health, and you’ve seen some examples of companies making progress in this area.

For more information, visit the World Mental Health Day website and browse the resources they've got available. Also, support those around you by opening up an honest dialogue and asking the kind of simple questions promoted by Australia’s R U OK? initiative:

And if you’re experiencing depression, anxiety or any other mental health issues, I encourage you to reach out for support, either through your employer plan, through the healthcare system, or through mental health charities and other organisations in your area.

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