How to Address Mental Health at Work: An Expert Panel

Sessions at the 2018 Health Benefits and Leadership Conference presented a holistic view of well-being–particular care was paid to the importance of mental health in the workplace. Attendees first heard about strides other companies were making to address mental well-being during the first general session “Transforming the Employee Healthcare Experience” moderated by HRE‘s benefits columnist Carol Harnett.

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Then on Thursday, April 5th, another panel of experts tackled the topic in the session “Taking on Mental Health in the Workplace–Challenges and Solutions. The panel, moderated by Nancy Spangler, senior consultant at the Center for Workplace Mental Health of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation discussed how their organizations addressed mental well-being, offering actionable advice for attendees to take back to their own companies.

Expert panel at HBLC speaking about mental well-being at work
From left to right: Nancy Spangler, Kim Hauge, Andrew Crighton and Sandra Kuhn.

Spangler said one in five adults has a mental-health disorder and one in 10 has a substance-abuse problem. The economic impact of major depressive disorder and its comorbid medical conditions, she added, cost the U.S. more than $210 billion annually. Half of these costs are workplace-related, such as absence and presenteeism.

There are more reasons to address mental health at work than the financial aspect, and the experts were armed with solutions, including addressing stigma and enhancing benefits.

Kim Hauge, director of employee wellness at Kent State University, implemented an initiative into the university’s five-year strategic plan that provided employees with tools to address mental health. She also led a three-month campaign in which every leader and employee was made aware of resources for mental- and behavioral-health issues. An EAP representative was present during all meetings to reinforce the program benefits.

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Hauge said the employee track of the program was designed to teach workers how to recognize depression and speak to colleagues about concerns and where to find resources. The leadership track taught managers about depression, its prevalence and what they can do if they see a troubled employee. It also addressed empathy–participants were taught to pause and consider if something they might normally call a “workplace-performance issue” may actually be an underlying mental-health issue.

After the initiative, EAP utilization significantly increased (from 13 percent in 2015 to 55 percent in 2017) and healthcare-claim dollars significantly decreased–just by talking about mental health.

Andrew Crighton, vice president and chief medical officer at Prudential, said the company has also worked hard to destigmatize mental health, so much so that executives recorded videos for employees about their own struggles with substance abuse and depression, and the eventual success they found with the resources at Prudential. When leaders talk about these issues, he said, employees really listen.

At Mercer, Sandra Kuhn, principal and lead for the behavioral-health consulting group, said clients with whom she’s worked often face five “buckets” of challenges in addressing mental health: access to care, cost of care, stigma, quality and integration. Access dips into cost because many providers don’t participate in-network, so employees are forced to look out-of-network, which dramatically increases their out-of-pocket costs.

Kuhn said integration is important because mental health shouldn’t be siloed from medical coverage or wellness programs.

Spangler noted that, so often within wellness initiatives, physical activity and nutrition are stressed as preventative measures for cardiovascular disease or cancer but research is increasingly indicating that both measures are also hugely important for mental health.

“If we talk about mental health this way, we reduce stigma automatically,” she said.

Before concluding their session, Kuhn discussed ways to leverage technology and behavioral health. She mentioned that a large client of hers implemented text-based therapy, which was a good fit for a big portion of the company’s employees–no one knows whom you’re texting, she said, so there’s limited stigma attached to this counseling method.

Mental health was also the focus of “Transforming the Employee Healthcare Experience,” moderated by HRE benefits columnist Carol Harnett. The panelists included Crighton; Janet McNichol, HR director at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association; and Kristin Reilly, vice president of global people experience at Walmart.

The panelists all agreed that destigmatizing mental health is key for any successful wellness program.Reilly pointed to a pilot program that connected employees with an on-site EAP clinician, instead of an over-the-phone consultation.

“The on-site clinician helps normalize mental-health communication, which has made it ‘acceptable’ for employees to see her,” said Reilly. “In just six months, the clinician has addressed 98-percent of requests for mental-health assistance on-site.”

Danielle King
Danielle Westermann Kinghttp://
Danielle Westermann King is a former staff writer for HRE.