After a difficult 18 months, American workers are utilizing mental health resources at record rates, but a new study suggests a majority of employers are planning to reduce that extra coverage in the months ahead.
According to a recent study conducted by Forrester Consulting and Modern Health, 89% of C-suite and HR leaders acknowledge the importance of providing employees with mental health support, but 60% intend to revert back to their pre-pandemic mental health strategy. Furthermore, 80% of C-suite leaders and 73% of HR leaders believe that employees expect too much mental health support from their employers.
“The thing we found concerning is that a lot of C-suite executives were considering rolling back mental health benefits,” says Myra Altman, vice president of clinical strategy and research at Modern Health. “Some executives are thinking that it’s a short-term trend, that the pandemic will end and people’s mental health [needs] will go back to baseline.”
Altman warns against that approach, arguing that pre-pandemic norms were failing even then to meet the mental health needs of employees, and that pandemic-related stress, anxiety, burnout, depression, and trauma won’t go away anytime soon.
“What we’re seeing in the data . . . [is] that we’re not likely to see a decrease in mental health needs immediately post-pandemic,” she says. “We all want this to be over, we all want to go back to normal, but we have to acknowledge there is no going back to pre-pandemic times; the way we work and live has changed.”
Temporary Measures Created Unsustainable Costs
When the pandemic began, many employers sought to support their staff with additional mental health resources, but those resources were often considered a temporary solution to a temporary problem. What few considered—or worked into their budgets—was the costs of a long-term mental health crisis.
“Overall employer health care spend is itself a problem in our country, because it continues to go up faster than inflation, and at some point it’s unsustainable,” explains Jeris Stueland, expert associate partner at McKinsey & Co., who leads their employer healthcare service line.
Stueland, however, believes employers aren’t necessarily looking to take away mental health coverage. Instead, many are in the process of reevaluating the emergency measures they put in place to support their staff through the worst of the pandemic, with the goal of transitioning toward a more sustainable long-term solution.
“They are looking to ensure that the coverage is tailored to their needs, and it’s sustainable,” she says. “There are employers who are concluding that having a $0 co-pay for all mental health visits may not be sustainable, and is not exactly meeting the needs of our population as much as an additional offering that supports pediatric mental health would, or an on-site clinic.”
The ROI of mental health resources
Despite the ballooning costs, employers who invest in mental health resources typically see a return on that investment in the form of employee retention, recruitment, morale, and productivity. Furthermore, supporting mental health can actually reduce physical healthcare costs.
According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the cost of treatment for those suffering with both a mental and physical condition can be twice or three times as expensive as treating a physical ailment alone. “People with physical health problems also often have mental health problems, and when you treat them together they’ll need less pain management or will need fewer days in the hospital,” says Stueland.
As a result, cutting mental health resources could ultimately push costs elsewhere. “The return on investment is pretty significant for employers who acknowledge mental health and well-being, and provide benefits for that. So, not providing [those benefits] could certainly impact your overall business,” says Elissa Jessup, anHR knowledge advisor at the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). “That could negatively impact not only employee retention, but overall productivity, and the bottom line.”
Jessup points to a 2016 study conducted by the World Health Organization, which found that for every $1 employers invested in scaled-up treatment of common mental disorders, there was a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.
“Even before the pandemic started, the World Health Organization estimated that mental health [issues], such as depression and anxiety, cost the global economy $1 trillion per year,” she says. “If employees are well, physically and mentally, they’re more likely to be productive and have loyalty to their employer, and that benefits employers in the long run.”
Technology can improve access while reducing costs
Recent months have seen significant strides in innovation within the mental health industry, as the pandemic forced providers to consider new ways to deliver their services. Such technologies, when used effectively, allow employers to extract greater value from every dollar they spend on mental health resources.
“Technology has fueled the ability to get those resources out,” says Sandra Kuhn, partner and national leader for behavioral health consulting at Mercer, a healthcare benefits provider. “The pressures on the system around access have been helped by technology, so now you don’t need to drive to the provider’s office, you can do a video session, which allows for more convenience and more appointments to occur.”
Kuhn adds that technology can also help employers better track and optimize their healthcare spending on the back end. For example, a data dashboard could help employers better understand how their mental health programs are being utilized, how spending on mental health is reducing other costs, and track how the needs of theirs employees change over time.
“Having a data dashboard is important longer-term for the business case to keep the program in place, so that whoever you need to sell the continuation of the program to can see that it’s really having an organizational impact,” she says.
Ending the stigma
While the pandemic experience itself has resulted in a greater need for mental health resources, it has helped reduce the stigma surrounding the topic. Irrespective of pandemic-related needs, the simple fact that more people are openly talking about mental health will inspire some to pursue the help they avoided in the past.
As a result, Kuhn believes that providing those mental health resources has become a baseline expectation. “In a new-hire situation, people are asking, ‘What kind of mental health benefits do you offer?,’ and we’ve never seen or heard that, or thought that would be the case, but it’s now something people look for,” she says.
Employees and business leaders are opening up about mental health in ways they hadn’t before, creating another “new normal” that won’t dissipate after the pandemic is over.
“On the silver lining side of things relative to the pandemic, so much positive has been done in regards to awareness and reducing stigma,” says Kuhn. “It’s been brought front and center, and it’s a topic that’s on the table with our clients in almost every conversation.”