The Growing Cost of Mental Health in the Workplace — and What an Employer Can Do

The world looks and feels a lot different right now. COVID-19 has literally changed life as we know it. Employees are now working from home. Travel has been reduced and even banned internationally. Even restaurants, retailers, and gyms are closed for the foreseeable future. And the mental health implications are steep. In a world where the guidance of the day is social distancing, caring for your mental health has never been more important. It’s a stressful time for all and being intentional about mental health, and overall wellbeing is important for your employees.

Mental health was already an important workplace situation, but an international pandemic is only exacerbating the situation. Did you know that workplace stress is estimated to cost employers $500 billion annually in the form of decreased performance at work or absenteeism—and that was before COVID-19?

It’s hard to break away from the bad news cycle, and this is only adding to the stress of managing work, home and family, and trying to do everything effectively. Employees were already stressed about health care and the associated costs. And this viral pandemic is only adding to that stress. The stats tell the story.

Fifty-four percent of Americans say they’ve delayed medical care for themselves in the last year because they couldn’t afford it. Nearly a quarter of Americans have delayed medical care for more than a year due to financial issues. And, the financial burden on mental health support is not exempt. It’s actually worse. According to reports, each year, 57% of adults suffering from mental illness don’t get treatment. Productivity is also taking a hit—and the COVID-19 news cycle is hindering that even more. The National Alliance on Mental Health estimates that untreated mental illness costs the United States up to $193 billion annually in lost productivity.

Given the uncertainty around when COVID-19 will “end” and life will normalize, employees are likely to be more stressed in the weeks and months to come. The cost associated with that stress will be significant. Stress takes a toll on one’s physical health, and the lack of social interaction has a significant impact on mental health. This is a dangerous combination and a vicious cycle. And it’s incredibly overwhelming for all, because of the many unknowns.

However, there is good news. Employers can help. And they are well-positioned to do just that. As the stigma around mental health lessens, there is a great opportunity to provide much-needed support that can also benefit the business through increased productivity and overall cost savings. It’s about providing benefits that support mental health care at a time when it’s never been more important.

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This will look different for every company, but voluntary benefits, in particular, offer a way to serve and support employees in a world of unknowns. Mental health care was always a priority, but the need is even greater today. A handful of voluntary benefits, like those listed below, can help address mental health issues among your employees:

  • Corporate wellbeing programs: Wellbeing programs offer both physical AND mental health benefits. Prioritizing your physical health can positively impact your mental health. And taking care of yourself mentally makes it easier to get and stay physically active. It’s a cycle and the benefits are many–higher self-esteem, more energy, a positive outlook, and generally feeling happier. It’s science, too. Mental and physical health contributes to a healthier lifestyle, and today, it’s never been more important to take care of yourself.
  • Hospital indemnity plans: Did you know that mental wellness and addiction recovery support are rarely covered in most hospital indemnity plans? This kind of added benefit truly shows employees their employer cares. Hospital indemnity insurance is about choice. It provides employees with the choice and control they need to avoid gaps in medical coverage and help cover deductibles. This voluntary benefit can help calm worries and fears about health care coverage that often contribute to workplace stress and increase mental anxiety leading to larger mental health issues.
  • Disability plans: Something we frequently hear from employees and customers is a desire for mental illness and substance abuse coverage as a part of disability plans. The need is great and benefits companies are responding accordingly. Some new disability policies are addressing this specific concern, providing important coverage to battle mental health and substance abuse struggles. These new plans offer no reduction in benefits, lifetime maximum or separate benefit period, and treat these illnesses like any other claim.

There is a big opportunity to rethink benefit plans right now. From this time of great uncertainty and need will come much innovation. As we begin to think differently about benefits and coverage, it’s important to step back and look at the bigger picture. A more holistic approach to employee health means thinking not about the individual benefits but benefit plans as “health hubs” that are nimble and allow employers to address the many and ever-changing health needs of their employees.

Change is never easy. But the COVID-19 pandemic is spurring us to change and change quickly. For now, it’s about listening to your employees and understanding the mental health needs of the workplace. With a comprehensive understanding of the support employees need, employers are better positioned to offer voluntary benefits that help the company meet the ever-changing needs of employees.

Christin Kuretich joined Trustmark in 2009. As senior director of product and innovation for Trustmark's accident and critical illness insurance products, she is responsible for researching marketplace trends and assessing the voice of the customer in order to create new product solutions for customers.

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