The global need for mental health care remains a challenge worldwide. The prevalence of mental disorders is rising globally and places a burden on society that needs to be addressed as the issue continues to grow, work continues to intensify, cultures lack inclusiveness and access to necessary mental health support is poor.
However, in a recent survey, HR and risk managers respectively ranked mental health 18th and 21st out of 25 risks, and workforce exhaustion 22nd out of 25. This is quite stunning considering that these are such pervasive issues, and it seems at odds with intersecting risks that did make it into the top 10, including catastrophic personal life events, changing nature of work and the environment.
Are companies viewing mental health as “last year’s problem”? Do they feel they have “checked the box” by adding an employee assistance program (EAP) or running an anti-stigma campaign?
BRINK spoke to Alison Byrne and Dr. Ariel Almazan of Mercer Marsh Benefits about how mental health intersects with work and what better support for employees could look like.
BRINK: The People Risk survey results seem to show that employers could be compartmentalizing the issue of mental health, rather than seeing it as an issue that is inherently connected to other risks that arise, such as the COVID pandemic, as well as it being a risk to address continually. Do you think this is the case?
ALMAZAN: Our most recent People Risk research seems to indicate that mental health is slipping down the workplace agenda. This was surprising, given more people than ever are suffering from loneliness, stress, anxiety, and depression. Some are concerned that many HR and risk teams are thinking of mental health as an issue that they’ve successfully tackled. However, even though the COVID pandemic is easing, helped by vaccination, the mental health crisis is far from over. Global events such as rampant inflation, the cost-of-living crisis, the Ukraine conflict, geopolitical tension, and climate events will all heighten stress and anxiety in the future.
Employer-provided mental health support must go further. Firms must learn lessons from COVID-19, which highlighted the importance of having a range of mental health supports in place and in managing risks that come from poor design, organization and management of work. One in two employees report feeling somewhat stressed every day. During the pandemic, 64% of those with mental health benefits felt supported by their employer versus 44% of those without.
How Much Does Mental Health Impact Work Life?
BRINK: To what degree do employees’ mental health challenges impact their work life?
BYRNE: Insurers recently identified emotional or mental risk as one of the top influencers of employer-provided medical plan costs. On top of disability and direct medical claims, poor mental health remains the number one cause of absence and can also cause low productivity.
But costs are not the only reason employers should be concerned about the mental welfare of their workforces.
Mental health issues may also lead to serious incidents involving misconduct, errors and omissions, and safety issues, including workplace violence due to cognitive impairment caused by unmanaged stress. Workplace environments that contribute to stress face reputational damage, high employee turnover and loss of key talent. The longer an individual is unable to work due to mental health illness, the less likely they are to return.
Absences caused by physical illness often give way to feelings of isolation and depression. Bringing such people back to work as soon as possible and appropriate, even in a reduced capacity, may accelerate recovery and helps an organization retain knowledge and reduce costs.
There are also significant benefits for companies that get this right — mental health provision is a core differentiator, which can boost talent acquisition and retention.
For instance, our research found that 42% of employees with access to mental health benefits are less likely to leave a company, compared to 27% of those without access. Equally, people whose employers provide a wide range of health and well-being benefits are more loyal, more engaged and less likely to leave.
Merging Work and Home Life
BRINK: Loneliness and lack of socializing as well as increasing sedentary and indoor lifestyles often contribute to worsening mental health struggles. What do you anticipate the long-term impacts of working from home are?
BYRNE: Flexible working is the most valued type of health and well-being support, with three out of five employees saying they would highly value, or extremely value, flexible working arrangements.
Our research shows that 61% of employees say the pandemic brought some positive experiences, including spending more time at home, better work-life balance, avoiding commuting and working remotely.
Organizations should, therefore, support this by embracing a wider definition of flexible working that includes flexibility in not just location, but time and benefits as well.
However, this does not mean that there aren’t challenges. For instance, the same research found that 78% had a negative experience throughout the pandemic. The top five negative experiences globally were being financially worse off, feeling lonelier or more isolated, being less healthy/physically fit, experiencing a mental health issue and finding work less satisfying. Companies must address the new health risks associated with working away from a single worksite.
More deliberate approaches are needed to ensure that changes to working practices do not erode the benefits of teamwork or remove opportunities for positive social interaction. Companies need to consider the implications of people changing where they live and how they access support for work. This includes mental health risks such as isolation and employees extending their workday in unhealthy ways.
All of this means rethinking benefits to provide solutions for new behavioral issues, work-life balance and social connection. Effective employee benefits should take a joined-up approach and focus on the whole person. This should include an assessment of how connected the individual feels to their organization and its mission, vision and values.
Alison Byrne UK Workplace Health Consulting Team Leader at Mercer Marsh Benefits
Ariel Almazan Wellness, Health & Claims Director, Workforce Health, Mexico & LAC at Mercer Marsh Benefits