The ‘wellness’ of your employee mental health benefits

True inclusive mental health care today means offering a diverse pool of assistance that provides acute, preventative, and chronic behavioral and mental health care. (Credit: Tadamichi/Adobe Stock)

We’ve all seen the statistics pointing to the pandemic’s impact on mental health for employees. With rates of depression and anxiety skyrocketing, and the Omicron variant leading to continued uncertainties, mental health is evolving as a major focus for companies’ HR teams.

Because of this, we’re seeing employers prioritizing and investing in mental health and wellness benefits offerings in ways we’ve never seen before. These benefits are not only setting companies apart at a time when employee recruitment and retention is more important than ever but also are becoming critical for the health of their employees and their business.

As a practicing psychiatrist on the front lines of this burgeoning mental health crisis, I implore employee benefits leaders to consider a key element missing in the current conversation. Yes, we need to focus on health benefits selection, but we need to make sure inclusion is a central part of the conversation. While more than half of employers say focusing on DE&I across their business is a high priority, is that translating to the mental health and wellness benefits they’re offering? Are their benefits inclusive enough to deliver on the unique needs of these different types of employees that make up our workforce today?

Much of what has been discussed to date around the topic of “inclusion” in mental health has focused on the importance of programs that negate employee isolation and encourage connections. This is important, but we must go deeper. Just as there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to health care and health care benefits, behavioral health benefits must be designed with a tailored and more inclusive approach. Only then will companies be able to recruit, retain and aid a healthier and more productive workforce. Here are the key considerations for offering inclusive benefits:

Offer culturally competent mental health care. Think of the diversity of your workforce. Employees from historically underserved communities face unique mental health challenges that deserve to be treated with culturally concordant or culturally competent care.

The numbers show why this is so important. Today, 5.5% of Americans identify as LGBTQ+ and these numbers are growing. As the younger population enters our workforce, one in six adult members of Generation Z will consider themselves to be something other than heterosexual. When it comes to mental health, research shows that members of the LGBTQ+ community are two to four times more likely to experience a mental health condition.

Additionally, African American adults are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults. Seeking mental health care can be stigmatized within many Black communities, with just one in three African Americans ever receiving appropriate treatment and a significant portion misdiagnosed at unacceptable rates. As alarmingly, Asian American populations have the lowest help-seeking rate for mental health of any racial or ethnic group.

When designing their benefit plans, employee benefits leaders, managers, and advisors should consider the cultural impact and diversity of the providers their employees can access. Research shows that when a mental health professional understands and respects an employee’s identity and the role that cultural differences play in the diagnosis of a condition, it significantly improves outcomes.

Embrace virtual mental health care. Health care delivery shifted during the onset of the pandemic to an increase in the delivery of care through telehealth and the trend continues. Specific to mental health services, virtual care use rose in every region of the United States in the last two years. Now, companies report offering virtual behavioral health and wellness solutions and benefits as a key priority moving forward. Virtual care is well-positioned to meet this charge. Once viewed as a way for employees to have more timely access to mental health professionals, virtual care is providing a scalable solution to the increasing demand for mental health services across the country.

Play the long game. Let’s be clear. Mental health support cannot be defined as a one-time, transactional experience providing access only to a mental health professional. Unfortunately, many workers today believe access to comprehensive care is limited. In a recent poll, we found that 60% of Americans agree that the current healthcare system needs to provide better access to mental health.

What does this “better access” look like? True inclusive mental health care today means offering a diverse pool of assistance that provides acute, preventative, and chronic behavioral and mental health care. Think coaching, personalized wellness plans, therapy, psychiatry, and medication management. As important, care must be coordinated, ensuring that behavioral and mental health professionals have the ability to integrate with the employees’ primary care physician. The goal is not just a diagnosis. Instead, employers must offer benefits that offer support and services during any point in an employee’s entire care journey.

As part of today’s Great Resignation, employee well-being is cited as a major cause of employees leaving the workplace. Key to a company’s ability to recruit and retain employees will be a benefits package inclusive of mental health options that give members access to the comprehensive, culturally competent care they need.

Nikole Benders-Hadi, MD, is senior medical director of behavioral health at Included Health.

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