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How Employers Are Expanding Access to Mental Health Benefits

The economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many Americans to continue working from home. With the convenience of working virtually, companies have been able to expand their pool of employees, no longer encumbered by geographical location. 

While this new flexibility brings many positives, it is also partially responsible for an increase in mental health problems among workers. Isolation and feeling out of touch with normal life have caused more people to become depressed and anxious.

As we enter the second year of the pandemic, the need for accessibility to mental health care is on the rise. While many companies included mental health coverage in pre-Covid benefit packages, the number of companies extending mental health accessibility is on the rise.

Closing access gaps, especially in states where healthcare options can be limited, is one obstacle providers are still working to overcome. Some organizations are helping to find solutions, such as with Oceans Behavioral Hospital’s new behavioral health unit in Corpus Christi. Providing outpatient behavioral health services as well as telehealth options makes care available to more people.

The Expansion of Mental Health Care Benefits

The strain of a pandemic on our healthcare system is impossible to ignore. Nearly one in five health care workers across the U.S. quit their jobs, and as many as 3,600 health care workers may have died from COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic. 

With a greater need for mental health professionals and fewer health care workers available, networks have narrowed even more.

Around 40% of companies with 50 or more employees have made significant changes to their plans to help employees access the help they need. Some of the changes those companies made include:

  • 31% of companies increased options for accessing mental health services, including telemedicine
  • 6% of companies expanded their employees’ access to in-network mental health providers
  • 16% offered new resources for mental health services such as employee assistance programs
  • 4% reduced cost-sharing for mental health appointments
  • 3% of companies increased their coverage for services out-of-network

Workers appear to be responding positively to these changes. Thirty-eight percent of companies with 1,000 or more workers and 12% of smaller companies reported that their employees used more health services in 2021 than in the previous year.

Expanding Alternatives to Traditional Mental Health Care

Some companies are also handling their wellness programs differently in addition to expanding benefits to accommodate employees. Expanding telemedicine services was the most common change. 

According to the Lund Report, in 2021, 95% of all employers offered some type of telehealth coverage. That’s roughly a 10% increase from the previous year. Video appointments, telephone appointments, and other methods of communication make mental health care more accessible to a broader range of employees no matter where they live or work.

Changing Company Culture

Offering more mental health care benefits and expanding access through telemedicine is vital. However, if employees still feel stigmatized by needing mental health services, they are less likely to seek them. Some companies are making efforts to break down the social barriers to receiving care.

Linking Professional Development to Mental Health

People receiving mental health care learn important skills they can apply in the workplace. Conflict resolution, improved communications skills, and increased confidence give employees the tools to excel in the workplace and their personal lives. By tying improved mental health to better work performance, employers make it easier for employees to seek the help they need.

Opening the Dialogue

Company leadership can do a lot to encourage employees to use mental health benefits. When managers talk openly about the importance of good mental health, especially when they share their own experiences, it lifts the stigmas that prevent some people from getting help. 

Making discussions about mental health a natural part of the company culture helps employees take better care of themselves.

Peer-to-Peer Support

Employee support groups led by a licensed mental health professional can positively impact employee retention and performance. Support groups provide a safe space to discuss mental health needs. 

Going to a therapist or seeking counseling may be too intimidating for some people, but joining a group at work feels friendlier. There is already a natural camaraderie among people who work at the same company. 

One thing that is certain in an uncertain world is that the workplace will continue to change. The more ways companies can support the mental health of their employees, the better-prepared everyone will be to navigate whatever the future brings. 

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