Employers Find Unique Ways to Help Improve Employees’ Mental Health

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – The pandemic has raised the stress levels of just about everyone, and with it are higher incidents of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. While employers are aware of the statistics, they often struggle with how to help their workers. Access to care, affordability, the stigma associated with mental health challenges and navigating the system can be overwhelming.

But organizations are taking innovative approaches to the behavioral health concerns affecting their workers. Representatives of several major organizations say clearly, attitudes toward mental health have changed during the pandemic.

“Ten years ago I’d go into a quarterly business review and we’d talk about medical trends, pharmacy trends, but when we got to mental health, a lot of employers would skip over it or spend very little time on it because didn’t cost them a lot of money; the care was cheap, not everybody uses it. It never drove medical trends,” said Kelly McDevitt, president of the Integrated Benefits Institute. “I think that the silver lining of the pandemic is it got employers to really understand it wasn’t just the mental health claims themselves that were costing them money, but there’s productivity implications; [talent] attraction and retention, family dynamics – so many other things that come with mental health care.”

Thompson was among the speakers at a recent IBI webinar on the latest research on mental health in the workplace and the challenges facing employers.

Research Findings

IBI analyzed recent studies as well as its own survey findings to see how things such as work disruptions and healthcare have affected employee mental health, and provide guidance as to ways employers can assess and mitigate the problems.

“The effect of COVID-19 on the mental health and productivity of the workforce was the highest ranked priority project from our member surveys,” IBI reported. “Poor mental health is related to absenteeism and presenteeism.”

The IBI research identified certain characteristics of employees who were worse off than the national average, including:

  • Regional differences exist with the hardest hit locations in the west and south
  • Those who shifted to telework or were on leave
  • Those who are female, younger, less educated, White or another race/multiracial, and not married
  • Those with unmet mental health counseling needs and taking a mental health Rx

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a 3-fold increase in depression and anxiety after the pandemic started; from 10.8 percent to 33.9 percent. The IBI researchers found an even higher rate among employed adults, more than four times as many have anxiety or depression now compared to before the pandemic – from 8.7 percent to 39.5 percent.

In addition to access to care and stigma reduction, the researchers also said employee engagement and communication effectiveness were major challenges to ensuring employees get the help they need. They advised organizations to help their workers find all mental health resources easily, remove physical and financial barriers to care, and use the momentum from the pandemic to bring actual change.


One company that had used a carve-out EAP for its mental health services for some 20 years started getting complaints. Employees said they’d call the appropriate number, get the names of six providers whom they would have to call, and ask for an appointment.

“What I started hearing was that appointments were four weeks out, six weeks out, eight weeks out,” said Lisa Thompson, director of Benefits for W.W. Grainger, Inc. “What was worse, when they got to the appointment the providers didn’t even seem to care about them. Whether providers were being so stressed out by their increased workload during the pandemic or whatever it is, we knew that the EAP solution that we had was not working for us.”

The company rebranded its EAP to a ‘stress management’ program, and carved it in. Employees now can go online and see available providers, see their availability, and book an appointment – usually within 24 or 48 hours.

“In nine months with our previous provider, we had 1,100 employees who accessed our EAP program,” Thompson said. “In the first 18 days we had 500 people access the new provider.”

Mental health challenges were an issue before the pandemic, and were only made worse later on. Another company also changed its efforts to provide mental health services prior to the pandemic.

“EAP – employee assistance program – people don’t know what that means. It’s just not a good name,” said Matt Ponicall, SVP of Benefits for Bank of America. “We changed it to ‘confidential counseling.’ We had tremendous support from [senior] leadership.”

Getting the backing of senior leaders is imperative to ensure workers who need help with mental health challenges will get the care they need. To help reduce the stigma associated with mental health challenges, companies should send the message that ‘it’s OK not to be OK.’

“Many employers told us a top-down approach was extremely important,” McDevitt said. “If you didn’t have leadership support to be able to go out and say, ‘it’s OK to not be OK and we actually have a program to support you,’ then no approach, no strategy is going to work.”

With strong support from its leaders, Bank of America has introduced a number of strategies to help employees who may have mental health challenges. One, for example, was to add behavioral health services to its virtual care provider, through a psychologist or psychiatrist. “We made that completely free of charge,” Ponicall said. “Remove that cost barrier to give folks who didn’t have access to a provider, access. We saw tremendous utilization.”

The company also created a section on emotional wellness in its coronavirus resources on the top of its intranet site. It introduced resiliency apps and a program to help people with resiliency and emotional stress that’s included in Thrive Global, a behavioral change technology company founded by Arianna Huffington – also free to employees as well as their families.

New or expanded training for managers focuses on ways they can help their workers who may come to them with emotional issues, such as depression, stress, anxiety and substance abuse is another step the company has taken.

Allowing people to talk about mental health challenges can go a long way to helping workers, the speakers said.

“If we reduce stigma from top down in an organization, that’ s a free step you can take to at least open the conversation,” McDevitt said. “There are many people out there who still have not or cannot raise their hand and say, ‘I need help.’ Those with unmet needs are great. It’s up to employers to seek out and find them, or at least make it OK for them to come forward. It’s a free step every employer can take.