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Why solving family mental health is a business imperative

Dr. Shakira Espada-Campos
Dr. Shakira Espada-Campos brings more than two decades of direct practice experience to her role as the associate chief of Behavioral Health at MDLIVE by Evernorth. She began her career in the non-profit sector, working with children and families in trauma recovery, later transitioning to intensive trauma-informed work with adults struggling with PTSD and SMI. Prior to joining MDLIVE as a medical director, Dr. Espada-Campos held clinical leadership positions in community mental health and psychiatric settings, where she served as a practice supervisor, lead clinician and clinical expert.

In the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic and financial pressures affecting many have tested our collective resilience, impacting the health and mental wellbeing of our employees and their families. According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, one-third of adults in the U.S. are living with symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, and 90% of the public believes the nation is in a mental health crisis.

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These mental health struggles are not confined to an individual’s personal life but are brought to work each day, affecting job performance and productivity. In response, many employers have added a variety of mental health benefits and programs for their employees.

However, new research I recently led makes evident that it’s not enough to address the mental health of the employee alone. There is a strong association between an employee’s mental health status and the psychological well-being of their family members, pointing to the need for a whole-family approach to addressing mental health issues impacting the workplace.

Addressing the family mental health crisis

There’s an old saying that a mother is only as happy as her least happy child. MDLIVE’s research, Family Matters: Report on the State of Family Mental Health in the U.S., confirms the truth of that adage and goes beyond it by showing that for families, both chosen and biological, the emotional wellbeing of the entire family is directly entwined with its members’ mental health status and the relationship dynamics within the family unit.

Unfortunately, the current mental health state of the American family is not healthy, with only one in three of the study’s respondents reporting that their family had achieved a very good level of mental health.

Not surprisingly, financial factors play a significant role in the mental health of families, underscoring the emotional toll of economic strain for everyone. Interestingly, teens—13-19—were more likely than adults to be concerned about the job market and just as likely to be worried about food prices, inflation and the financial stability of the family, which undoubtedly compounds the stress on employees who are heads of the household.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has brought significant mental health challenges to the forefront. The effects have been most severe among older Gen Z members (19-to-24-year-olds), the future workforce, who had formative social and academic experiences disrupted during the pandemic. While the ripple effects of this disruption extend to their families, feelings of isolation run high among this age group and need to be addressed as it relates to whole-family health and employee productivity.

Enhanced mental health improves the bottom line

Improving the mental wellbeing of employees and their families not only enhances the workplace environment but can significantly improve a company’s bottom line, given the annual cost of lost productivity.

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Gallup, in its recently released State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report, states that businesses with engaged workers have 23% higher profit, while employees who are not engaged cost the world $8.8 trillion in lost productivity, which is equal to 9% of global GDP.

The report found that, along with dissatisfaction, workers are experiencing staggering rates of both disengagement and unhappiness. ­In the U.S. specifically, 50% of workers reported feeling stressed at their jobs daily, 41% reported feeling worried and 22% reported feeling sad.

Moreover, a survey by Mental Health America (MHA), a leading mental health advocacy group, showed the spillover effects of stress, dissatisfaction on the job and overall mental health, with more than half of respondents engaging in such unhealthy behaviors as substance abuse to cope with stress.

MHA estimates that mental and physical health costs associated with workplace burnout run as high as $190 billion annually. In addition, in its 2022 Mind the Workplace Report, MHA reported that four out of five employees say that workplace stress affects their relationships with friends, family and co-workers.

4 pathways to progress

It’s time for a new paradigm that takes a holistic approach, including programs and resources that support the mental wellbeing of the entire family. Access to these services and programs, which promote wellness and work/life balance, may help alleviate stressors and allow employees to maintain focus and produce their best work.

Benefit needs and priorities, however, vary among employees. For example, what is important to millennials will likely differ from those living in a sandwich generation—taking care of young family members and aging parents—and those close to retirement. Understanding that one size does not fit all means addressing behavioral health needs by offering diverse, flexible and adaptable behavioral health services. Here are a few opportunities:

  • Foster a stigma-free work environment. Organizations can foster a supportive environment by promoting open dialogue about mental health. Coupled with education initiatives, this helps ensure that employees and their families understand and feel comfortable accessing the mental health services they need.
  • Educate on virtual behavioral care services. While many benefit plans provide virtual behavioral health services to their employees, education on access, convenience and the range of behavioral health services for all members of the family is essential and requires ongoing communications.
  • Offer flex time. Provide employees with flex-time opportunities to address family members’ mental health issues, such as accompanying a child, spouse, partner or other family member to a therapy session.
  • Go beyond benefit packages. In addition to core behavioral health services and employee assistance programs, companies have the opportunity to implement non-traditional perks that support mental wellbeing, such as promoting and honoring a one-hour “pause” in the day for lunch, exercise, meditation or any other activity to recharge, as well as paid mental health days off to spend with family or friends.

Addressing family mental health is not just the right thing to do; it is a business imperative. A comprehensive approach that recognizes the need for diverse, flexible and adaptable whole-family mental health services can significantly boost productivity. By understanding the critical connection between family mental health and workplace performance, companies can more effectively build a resilient, engaged and productive workforce.