Will These 5 Workforce Mental Health Quick Fixes Hold?

Apr 29, 2021

By Becky Wood

Over a year into the pandemic, one in five United States adults are still experiencing high levels of psychological distress. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40 percent of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use disorder in 2020, with even higher rates among young adults, people of color, and unpaid caregivers. 

To meet this unprecedented need for mental health care, employers have explored a variety of updates to their mental health benefits over the last year. Many benefit teams didn’t have the time or resources they would have liked to fully address workers’ soaring mental health needs while also leading the response to COVID-19 and supporting a difficult transition to remote work, so they did the best they could with the resources at hand. We applaud any 2020 mental health focused efforts, while also recognizing that many benefit teams considered these efforts a short-term strategy. 

The following five quick fixes are just a few changes some companies made to their workforce mental health offerings during the pandemic. Here’s our take on which fixes are Band-Aids you should replace, and which ones you can use as building blocks for a long-term, comprehensive employee mental health strategy.

Quick fix #1: Free trials of health apps and other short-term programs

Eager to show up for their people, many companies offered a time-bound free trial of a health app or short-term therapy program to use during the pandemic. Many of these apps were standalone apps–meaning they did not provide access to a clinician. 

Is it effective? No. 

Standalone apps and programs are a short-term solution to employees’ skyrocketing rates of mental health issues over the past year. An app isn’t enough to support the one in five employees who needed care even before COVID-19 – for example, those with severe mental health issues, like major depressive disorder, or schizophrenia – much less the people who need help for the first time.

Additionally, free trials can be disruptive, sending the wrong message about supporting mental health care when the benefit ends (unless you replace it with something more robust).

The solution: Apps can be a useful supplementary tool for employees, but it’s important to consider a longer-term workforce mental health strategy. First, gather feedback on the trial program: what worked for your people? What would they change? Did the programs provide a measurable benefit for their users? Then, do a real evaluation of vendors to fill any gaps you discovered. 

It’s still a busy time in the employee benefits world, but taking a pause from the breakneck pace of the past year can help you build a more solid long-term plan. Studies point to the urgency around mental health support for children and families, too: Nearly half of parents say they’ve noticed a new or worsening mental health condition for their teen since the beginning of the pandemic. With this in mind, it’s essential to consider a benefit that provides the right type of care for a large group of people in the moderate and severe symptom range–including dependents of employees–not just the employees with access to the app.

Quick fix #2: Flexible vacation time or mental health days

As employers began to recognize the early signs of burnout in their employees in 2020, many offered mental health days, increased vacation time with offerings like summer Fridays, or flexible time off. 

Is it effective? Yes, but not by itself. 

While mental health days are a great policy in theory, they can’t replace proper treatment and they don’t address the root cause issues that lead someone to become distressed in the first place. If someone is experiencing clinical depression, for instance, designated days off can be helpful, but this policy alone also won’t resolve underlying symptoms. Furthermore, according to Lyra’s Clinical Director of Partnerships, Joe Grasso, PhD, “If days off are offered, but not part of a company-wide day off initiative, people may not feel that they can take advantage of them or ask their managers for the time off. This is especially true if a mental-health friendly work culture isn’t in place.” 

The solution: Adding mental health days to your benefits package shows that your company cares about mental health. Use that momentum to build out a more comprehensive, long-term mental health strategy, with a focus on addressing mild issues before they snowball into burnout or more serious conditions. Additionally, having a holistic mental health offering that reaches every member and includes a focus on addressing mild mental issues can contribute to overall company mental wellness

Quick fix #3: Offering access to a meditation or resiliency app 

Another popular short-term solution in 2020 was giving employees access to a mobile meditation or resiliency app.

Is it effective? No. 

Apps can provide benefits, but they’re insufficient for  people with moderate to severe mental health symptoms.

While employees can reap benefits from a meditation or mindfulness app in the short-term, there’s little evidence to show that apps result in reliable clinical improvement or recovery from a moderate to severe mental health condition. There’s rarely a way for employees to navigate to higher levels of care using the app, which means vulnerable members can fall through the cracks.

The solution: Investing in a full-scale mental health care solution is pricier than a standalone app, but it also means a bigger return on investment. In insured populations, around 60 percent of healthcare spend can be attributed to the 23 percent of the population diagnosed with behavioral health conditions — which means investing in a robust behavioral health benefit can help reduce overall health care costs.

You don’t have to give up the user-friendliness of an app, either. Members these days expect a streamlined digital mental health care experience that includes apps, messaging platforms, and telehealth in addition to access to in-person care — all of which coexist in a blended care solution. 

A more comprehensive offering can serve as a “front door” to mental health care, supporting both members facing issues on the milder end of the spectrum (think stress and relationship issues), and those with more complex needs. Make sure any offering you choose is evidence-based, so you’ only pay for care that actually works. 

Quick fix #4: Zero copays on behavioral health 

To make care accessible and encourage more people to seek help in 2020, many employers temporarily dropped their behavioral health copay to zero.

Is it effective? No. 

While making care financially accessible is important, eliminating copays doesn’t remove other hurdles to care — or ensure that the care employees get helps them get better.

Even if mental health care is free, the average wait for a first appointment is still 21 days, which prevents many members from getting help when they need it. Many health plan networks become ghost networks over time, filled with outdated lists of providers who no longer accept new patients.

And even when patients are able to access free care, it’s not guaranteed to be effective. Most health plans don’t evaluate whether or not mental health providers practice proven treatments. As a result, an estimated 72 percent of providers in mental health plan networks offer care that is ineffective or possibly even harmful. 

The solution: Offering free mental health care is a great start. But to make sure it’s a good investment (and not wasted spend), its’ crucial to address potential access and quality issues.

Consider evaluating a mental health care vendor who commits to a ghost-free, robust provider network, a quality member experience, and a record of effective, evidence-based care — so you know the care you’re offering is helping the people who need it. 

Quick fix #5: Enhancing your existing EAP instead of offering a new dedicated mental health benefit

As workers’ mental health declined during COVID-19, many companies opted to work with what they already had — their existing Employee Assistance Program, or EAP — rather than invest in something new. For many, that meant temporarily increasing the EAP mental health care session limit, which is typically  three to six sessions per employee. 

Is it effective? No.

Increasing EAP session limits likely helped employees in the short-term, since traditional EAP limits of three to six sessions per employee fall short of the amount recommended  for effective care. In fact, a study revealed that on average, people with certain mental health conditions need at least eight to 16 sessions to see  meaningful symptom reduction.

However, increasing the session won’t make much difference unless you know the treatment your employees get is effective. Unfortunately, research shows that just 18 percent of employees see reliable clinical improvement with their EAP — and most clinical outcomes aren’t measured at all. That means companies can’t measure the true ROI and impact of increasing their session limit.

And, of course, an increased session limit on its own doesn’t change the overall care experience. Your employee population deserves a diverse network of providers, including those specializing in care for children, families, couples, BIPOC employees, and LBGTQ-identifying individuals. While trainings and internal marketing campaigns can be powerful tools for promoting mental health and inclusion, they can’t replace one-on-one therapy from trained providers who understand your employees’ unique life experiences. 

The solution: If you raised your EAP session limits last year to help your people cope amid the pandemic, it’s a good idea to keep those increases in place – the more sessions a patient has, the more likely they’ll see a reduction in their symptoms. That being said, make sure you’re working with a vendor who can guarantee quality, so that you’re not wasting resources without seeing your employees improve. Also make sure to consider other factors when selecting a mental health provider. Your mental health benefit should offer clinically validated care, diverse provider networks, and a streamlined patient experience that members love — all things that tend to be lacking in traditional EAPs.

Learn more about what other employees and employers are thinking about around mental health in 2021 in Lyra’s State of Mental Health Report

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DISCLAIMER:

The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Becky Wood is a freelance writer who helps tech companies enchant their audience with scroll-stopping digital content. Previously at NASA, Oracle, and Uber, she specializes in translating stuffy scientific concepts and business jargon into powerful stories. When she’s not polishing paragraphs, you can find her leading outdoor adventure trips around the wild west.