Addressing mental health in the workplace needs to be compassionate and proactive, experts said at HBLC.

A landmark longitudinal study out of New Zealand revealed a startling statistic about mental health: Over a period of 45 years, 97% of study participants reported at least one instance of depression.

“It is actually the norm to have experienced depression on some level or another at some point,” health and employee benefits consultant Carol Harnett told the audience at a general session during last week’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas. The panel discussion, moderated by Harnett, who is also HRE’s benefits columnist, focused not on the universality of mental-health challenges—but, rather, universal approaches companies can take to remedy them.

Making the Most of Your EAP

Chief among the ways organizations often tackle mental health in the workplace is through the employee-assistance program. However, many aren’t taking full advantage of their EAP—which could be leading to poorer employee performance and hits to the company’s bottom line.

For instance, Harnett said, companies with a 10% or higher EAP utilization rate reported lower short-term and long-term-disability claims. She polled the audience, with no one reporting a utilization rate of 10% or higher and a few attendees volunteering that their rates were between 1-9%—but the vast majority responded that they didn’t know their utilization levels.

While HR and benefits leaders should dig deep into those numbers, it’s also imperative for them to raise awareness among employees about the components of the EAP, and how to access services, said panelist Jaclyn Wainwright, CEO of AiR Healthcare Solutions.

“There’s great value in providing EAP services, and that value increases when people know what the EAP is, who provides it and how to access it—and when that’s all enforced from the top down,” she said. “It’s hard to really get people behind utilizing the EAP when senior leadership has no idea what it is or how to utilize it.”

Beyond getting leadership on board, benefits managers should ensure EAPs don’t function in a silo, said David Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the American Psychological Association. Integrate the EAP with other benefits that tap into mental health, such as insurance plans and disability programs.

“There’s a warm hand-off when that occurs,” he said. Likewise, the program should have a diverse set of offerings—avoiding the traditional conceptions employees have that an EAP is solely for mental-health crises or those with substance-abuse issues.

“Take more of a comprehensive approach,” Ballard said, suggesting organizations focus on the full “occupational health and safety of the organization.”

What’s New at Microsoft?

That has been an aim of Microsoft, said panelist Julie Krause, benefits manager of U.S. wellness at the tech giant.

Through the EAP—which has been managed by Wellspring Family Services for more than 30 years—employees can access individual, couple and family counseling. Currently, they are offered eight visits—a combination of both in-person and telephonic sessions—a number that will soon increase to 12 sessions per issue, per year, with a maximum of 24 sessions. Other EAP components include its Rethink program, which supports parents and families of children with special needs; stress-management assistance; new-parent education classes; and a parent-support webinar series—which features content for new parents before, during and after a parental leave, and also includes a manager track focused on helping employees through parental leave.

Krause said Microsoft has seen success when it offers EAP content on demand, such as its parent webinars, with significant increases in utilization. It is also moving forward with app-based services and is introducing a text-based counseling service through its health plan.

Last year, Microsoft launched a campaign in May, to correspond with Mental Health Month, themed “It’s OK to Not be OK” to help open the conversation about mental health in the workplace and connect employees with the EAP’s resources. While Krause said the effort successfully raised awareness about the EAP and helped make inroads toward breaking down mental-health stigma, she acknowledged the company should have done more planning work to prepare managers and HR.

In advance of the campaign’s return this week, she said, the organization has conducted a number of training sessions with manager and HR professionals about the EAP benefits, and how they can best respond to employees in need, Krause said.

The company is also encouraging leaders to share their own stories in order to enhance transparency around mental health. For instance, Microsoft Chief Marketing Officer Chris Capossela recently was interviewed on a company radio program about his own mental-health leave.

“We’re trying to focus on making [talking about mental health] normal,” Krause said. “We have these resources, and now how can we make using them just a normal part of the conversation? That’s the hardest piece—to make it comfortable for people to seek help.”

Building a Proactive Program

Making mental-health offerings as visible as possible can chip away at some of that hesitancy, Ballard said. For instance, have a counselor on site on certain days of the week, available for regular visits—and allow employees to schedule them while they’re on the clock. That can reinforce the notion that mental-health services are available as a proactive resource—not just for when someone is in crisis.

Organizations should design their EAP with elements unique to their workforce, Wainwright added. For instance, companies with a large population of employees who have English as a second language should ensure counselors and others associated with the EAP are bilingual, and that program materials aren’t only offered in English.

And if the EAP provider won’t offer such options, Ballard said, find a new one.

Currently, when people do access EAPs, Wainright noted, they often come crashing into the system—when they’ve hit rock bottom in a struggle with addiction or are experiencing suicidal ideation.

One way to try to reach them earlier, Wainwright said, is through data. AiR Healthcare Solutions partnered with data scientists at Microsoft to analyze a client’s benefits and health data—and ultimately predict who had underlying mental-health conditions not being addressed. One woman, for instance, was frequently driving 45 minutes to take her son to a physician treating him for asthma.

“We made the call and said, ‘We noticed you’re driving a really long way and that must be really hard as a working mother,’ ” Wainwright said, noting the woman broke down and expressed gratitude for the acknowledgment, opening up about the pressures of caring for her child and balancing her work schedule. AiR connected her with a doctor just minutes from her home, and Wainwright said the woman went on to thrive.

“We realized that approach had some real opportunity to change the way we cared for others,” she said. “A little compassion and empathy can go a long way.”

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]

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