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How to Meet Your Employees' Mental Health Benefit Needs

By Alliant Employee Benefits / June 18, 2024

10 questions to identify gaps in your current benefits package

With depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other mental health conditions near record highs, many companies are asking what more they can do for employees and their families. Indeed, 70% of employers surveyed by the Business Group on Health said that mental health access is a top organizational priority for 2024.

Yet many companies are unsure what to do next. After all, mental health is already covered by most medical plans, and many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).

The optimal solution, in fact, will vary from one company to the next. It depends on the needs of the workforce, the specifics of existing benefits programs, and several factors that influence how much employees use the benefits that are offered.

What follows are 10 questions (in three sections) that will help employers pinpoint areas of greatest need and identify the most effective steps for addressing them.

It's crucial to approach these questions with a blend of quantitative and qualitative information. By analyzing data streams such as medical plan claims, EAP usage, and other behavioral health programs—and possibly operational records of absenteeism, productivity, and turnover—employers can gain valuable insights into their workforce's mental health needs.

However, a fully rounded picture also requires listening to the workforce and family members through surveys, focus groups, or more informal channels about the behavioral health challenges they face and their experience with existing benefit programs. Those insights should then be supplemented with the observations of company supervisors and front-line HR staff.

 

The mental health conditions of your members


1. How frequently do members seek help for behavioral health issues?

You should be able to identify clear trends by looking at medical plan claims and EAP usage data. Most likely, you’ll see a spike during the height of Covid-19. National data, however, suggests that the incidence of mental health conditions, while down from that peak, is still higher than it was before the pandemic.

2. What conditions are members seeking help for?

Typically, depression and anxiety are the most common. But keep an eye out for clusters of other issues, such as alcohol and substance abuse that are on the rise.

3. Are there other indicators of employee stress and emotional challenges?

Claims data alone will not draw a complete picture, because many people with mental health issues don’t seek treatment. In addition, a range of conditions not formally diagnosed as mental illness still affect quality of life and keep people from fully participating in their jobs. Examples include stress, relationship issues, sleep problems, isolation, and grief.

Although it’s hard to quantify these conditions with precision, you can learn a lot from the comments (or survey responses) of employees, their managers, and HR staff. You may find additional clues in unexplained increases in absenteeism or turnover.

 

The effectiveness of your current benefit plan


4. How often do members’ behavioral health conditions go untreated?

Here, too, it’s hard to find precise answers, but the question is central to understanding how to address the needs of your members. The best source may be employees themselves. Your health plan may also have data on conditions that were diagnosed but not treated (or for which treatment was not completed). As a benchmark, a 2023 survey found that 17% of people covered by employer health plans said they needed mental health care but didn’t get it.

5. What is the availability of mental health services in your benefits plan?

On most plans, it’s increasingly difficult to find a therapist or psychiatrist who’s open to new patients or can schedule a timely appointment. Look for data from your plan provider and compare it with members' experiences.

Here, a simple ghost visit experiment may be instructive: Open your plan’s provider directory for a city in which you have many members and see how many therapists you must call before finding one with an available appointment within, say, a month.

6. Does your plan fully address all the mental health conditions members face?

Above, we advised taking stock of the behavioral and emotional challenges faced by members that don’t fit into traditional mental health frameworks. Now it’s time to see how well the services offered by your current plan (e.g., coaching, mindfulness, and sleep assistance programs) address these needs.

Reviewing claim data, you may also have identified clusters of conditions, e.g., substance abuse, that may benefit from specialized programs not currently offered by your medical carrier or EAP.

7. Does your plan engage members in methods they prefer?

Look at whether the mental health services your plan offers incorporate the technologies your members will actually use. For example, how easy is it to access a therapist who works over a video link? Do you have a significant number of members who might want to interact with a therapist through text messages or who might want to try one of the new generation of fully digital interactive mental health programs?

In a similar vein, some member populations may prefer more traditional face-to-face interactions. Keep in mind also that your employees’ preferences may differ from those of their children.

8. How well do members understand the benefits available to them?

As you explore the reasons that members didn’t get treatment for their behavioral health issues, you may discover that some weren’t aware of the services open to them. Review the communication that describes the mental health component of your medical plan and EAP. Can the content, medium, and frequency be improved to build awareness of all available options?

 

The impact of your policies and culture


9. Do your policies support employees who need help with mental health issues for themselves or their families?

What formal and informal signals does your company give employees about taking the time needed to address the behavioral health issues they face? Surveys show that concern about taking time off is a major reason that people don’t get the mental health care they need. Review your time-off policies—and understand how they’re perceived by employees.

10. Does your culture support—or stigmatize—getting treatment for mental health issues?

Many people are embarrassed to admit mental health challenges and are afraid that discussing them in the workplace could put them at a disadvantage. An organization’s culture can reinforce this reluctance, or it can help reduce the stigma and instead encourage them to get the help they need. Companies that prize employee self-reliance and competitiveness, for example, may inadvertently discourage addressing mental health issues. Evaluate how your company’s values are communicated, how your employees internalize those values, and the training of managers in dealing with the mental health challenges of those on their team.

 

Have questions about how to optimize your organization's benefits strategy? Get in touch with an Alliant consultant.

Final thoughts


As you consider these 10 questions, be aware that the answers can vary significantly among different groups of employees and family members based on Social Determinants of Health (SDOH), conditions in an individual’s environment that affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life risks and outcomes. Young adults, adolescents, BIPOC, and members of the LGBTQ+ community have a disproportionately high rate of behavioral health challenges. Meanwhile, people with certain cultural backgrounds may be especially reluctant to seek treatment for mental health issues.

Specific needs and treatment preferences will also differ depending on employee location and job type. People who largely work remotely, for example, are often at higher risk of depression and other conditions exacerbated by isolation. Those who regularly work with computers may be more attracted to digital solutions, for example, than those who are in manufacturing or construction roles.

With all this information in hand, you can plot a roadmap to address the mental health challenges of your workforce. Maybe you’ll want to enhance benefits offerings to increase the availability (and types) of therapists and broaden the range of conditions addressed. Or you may identify ways to communicate your benefits better or realize a need to adjust your culture and policies to encourage employees and their families to get help.

Whatever you decide to do to improve your mental health-related offerings, though, know that it’s sure to benefit your members and your organization. If you’d like help exploring these issues further, Alliant is here to help.

 

This article is the second in Alliant's three-part series to help employers understand and respond to the rise of mental and emotional health issues faced by their plan members.

 

See also:
The Case for Investing in Mental and Emotional Health Benefits

 

Selecting the Right Mental Health Benefits for Your Company

 

 

Disclaimer: This document is designed to provide general information and guidance. This document is provided on an “as is” basis without any warranty of any kind. Alliant Insurance Services disclaims any liability for any loss or damage from reliance on this document.