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Most Workers Aren't Using Their Mental Health Benefits — Here's How Employers Can Help

Published about 1 year ago • 4 min read

There’s no question that companies have come a long way in their support of employees’ mental health. In an August 2022 survey from PwC, 76% of CHROs said they already have a plan in place or will expand what they offer around mental health (up from 64% earlier in the year). Similar research from SHRM finds that nearly 78% of organizations currently offer or plan to offer mental health resources in the next year.

Fortunately for employers, most workers are seeing these improvements. In a 2022 survey from the APA, 71% of workers said they believe their employers are more concerned about employees’ mental health than in the past. The study also uncovered that offering mental health benefits could play an important role in attracting or retaining talent, with 81% of employees reporting that they’d prefer to work for companies that provide support for mental health concerns.

However, employees’ desire for mental health benefits and their usage of these benefits are two entirely different things. In fact, new research from my company, Workplace Intelligence, and One Medical, a membership-based primary care practice, reveals that only 19% of workers used their company’s mental health care benefits in 2022. That’s despite the fact that 64% of workers reported struggling with mental or behavioral health issues.

This low level of care utilization could explain why even though employers have increased their mental health support, most workers say their mental health either worsened (32%) or stayed the same (42%) last year. It could also explain why workers’ mental health issues remain unresolved year after year. Among those who reported mental or behavioral health issues, nearly half (46%) said they’ve struggled with these issues for over 3 years!

For many workers, the complexity of the healthcare system could be at least partly to blame. Over half (55%) of employees said they feel overwhelmed when they try to navigate the healthcare system. Nearly 4 out of 10 said it’s difficult to find out what treatment options are available (39%) or the costs of the treatment options (38%), and one-third have struggled to schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider.

In today’s article, I’ll describe some of other key findings from my company's study with One Medical, which surveyed 1,600 U.S workers and HR leaders across a variety of industries. I’ll highlight how workers’ poor mental health affects the bottom line, what employers can do to boost care utilization, and why primary care needs to be part of the solution. Let’s take a look.

The high cost of poor workforce mental health

One of the most eye-opening findings from our study was that among those struggling with their mental health, 91% said they’re less productive at work due to these issues. What’s more, nearly half (45%) said they’re less productive for more than 5 hours a week. That means these workers are losing at least 260 hours (6.5 weeks) of productive work time each year!

Similar research from Gallup reveals how poor mental health can affect absenteeism. They found that workers in poor/fair mental health report more than four times more unplanned absences (12 days/year) due to poor mental health than employees who report good, very good or excellent mental health (just 2.5 days/year). Generalized across the U.S. workforce, this missed work is estimated to cost the economy $47.6 billion annually in lost productivity.

And it’s not just productivity that’s at stake. My company’s research with One Medical also uncovered that workers feel their mental health issues have affected their ability to focus (84%), their ambition at work (75%), their relationships with their co-workers and manager (61%), and their interactions with clients or customers (54%).

How employers can boost care utilization

With employee well-being, productivity, and other outcomes on the line, it makes sense that companies would take steps to help workers make better use of their benefits. One important way employers are addressing this is by helping their team members navigate the healthcare system and access the care they need. In fact, the leaders we surveyed said their #1 strategic priority for 2023 is to improve the healthcare experience through care navigation solutions, which 50% are adding this year.

Leaders also acknowledged the need for increased awareness and communication around their benefits, noting that this is their #2 strategic priority for 2023. Only 50% of the employees surveyed said they’re aware of “all” or “most” of their company’s healthcare offerings, and 33% said their employer never communicates with them about the importance of getting treatment for mental or behavioral health issues. If employers are communicating, it’s clear that workers aren’t seeing these efforts — so it’s imperative that businesses do more to reach their people.

Companies also need to ensure that both workers and leaders understand the role that primary care providers (PCPs) can play in treating mental and behavioral health. PCPs can screen, diagnose, and often treat these issues, and they can guide patients to the right kind of specialty care as needed. However, 55% of employees and 66% of HR leaders inaccurately believe that these providers either play no role in treating these issues, or they can only screen for them.

It's not that people don’t understand the value of primary care. The majority of employees (89%) and HR leaders (91%) said it’s important to see a primary care provider on a regular basis, citing benefits like better well-being, long-term healthcare savings, and fewer sick days. However, leaders need to recognize that primary care can be the front door to effective

mental health treatment for their workforce, and they should ensure that employees know this as well.

Unlocking a better state of workforce mental health in 2023 and beyond

With so many employees finding it difficult to use their benefits, it’s no wonder they’re struggling to improve their mental health. Fortunately, it's clear that employers are invested in turning things around and helping their team members make more progress. Many are adding new solutions for care navigation, mental health, and primary care, and they’re also prioritizing increasing their communication around their benefits.

But even though businesses have made great strides in their support of workers’ mental health, it’s critical that they carry this momentum forward into 2023 if they want to move the needle on this issue. Those that don’t will continue to experience productivity losses and other negative outcomes that can result from poor workforce mental health.

Thanks for reading — be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts on these new study findings!

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