Before the pandemic, mental health was often treated as an afterthought to physical health when it came to benefits offered by employers. Now, workforce wellness programs are becoming increasingly common in the United States, driven by factors including the need to contain health care costs as well as attract and retain talent.
Most employers see employee mental health as a priority—96 percent of CEOs believe they are doing enough, according to a Forbes study. Despite the reported return of $4 for every dollar invested in mental health treatment, organizations have tended not to develop mental health-specific strategies. The increasing demand for behavioral health services results from challenges surrounding the cost of untreated mental illness. The average annual cost for an employee experiencing mental health issues is $15,000. These employees also use nearly $3,000 more in health care services than those who do not have mental health issues.
The mental health impact of the pandemic is long term. It has led many people to re-evaluate their lives and the ways they had been struggling in silence prior to COVID-19. SetWorking from home, home-schooling children, reducing social interactions, and working more hours under stressful circumstances have negatively impacted some people’s physical and mental health. Effects have varied based on individual workers’ demographic characteristics, individual capabilities, and occupations. Working from home has also led to a generalized increase in working hours and a diminished ability to separate home from work.
There are competitive reasons to pay more attention to employees’ mental health. In what has been dubbed the “Great Resignation,” record numbers of U.S. employees quit their jobs in 2021, often as a result of burnout. Now defined as a syndrome in the World Health Organization’s 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), burnout is specifically applied in an occupational context, with chronic workplace stress as the cause rather than a symptom.
Increasing numbers of people are turning away from draining and unsatisfying work and instead seeking a better future—a trend that may represent the American labor force re-examining its values. This trend will accelerate as workforce demographics change. Younger people are more likely to expect mental well-being to be part of their employment benefits—and more likely to be open about discussing it in professional contexts.
In this way, the pandemic has prompted employers to ramp up their mental health support. For example, in a National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions survey of over 250 employers, more than half said they were providing mental health programs for their workforce during COVID-19. Another survey of 1,200 businesses found that nearly half of employers had trained their managers to recognize the signs of mental illness in 2020, with an additional 18 percent planning to do so.
Employers can deploy a range of interventions to support staff well-being, but they should also avoid seeing any individual solution as sufficient on its own, since everyone in the workforce is different and has different needs.
Steps employers can take to make mental health a priority in their work cultures include:
Systematic thinking encourages companies to examine how work itself is a driver of mental health problems. For instance, studies show that stress and anxiety at work are caused not so much by the quantity of work but the intersection of high demand and low control.
The evidence is now strong that mental health is associated with better physical health, more engaged employees, and lower attrition. In a tightening labor market, and with younger workers placing more emphasis on mental health, companies cannot afford to ignore this dimension of well-being.
To learn more about the ROI of mental health support, download the full report by The Economist Group.
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