Why Your Mental Health Benefits Are Failing Your Employees

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While we thought 2020 was a tough year, 2021 has its own fair share of challenges. Even though there’s a light at the end of a tunnel, the mental health impact of the pandemic (especially on workers) cannot be understated. A recent American Psychological Association survey supports this notion, finding that rising stress could give way to a national mental health crisis. 

HR professionals have recognized that mental health was a critical issue in recent years, but this past year left many scrambling to introduce new platforms, apps, training programs, and other resources. 

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of employers made investments in mental health resources this year

McKinsey study found that 9 out of 10 employers noted that COVID-19 affected their workforce’s behavioral health, and 32% said they made significant investments to combat these issues.

While leadership and HR hope these offerings will make an impact, in this brand new workplace ecosystem, there are no guarantees. What’s more, this past year and a half has been, in essence, a worldwide mental healthcare experiment. 

At this unique moment in time, where mental health resources are both needed and front-of-mind for everyone, we ran a survey of 100 HR leaders and 300 employees. 

We wanted to find out: are employees taking advantage of the mental health investments their employers have offered? Are organizations making a real difference when it comes to mental wellness-related benefits? And if not, what’s blocking real improvement? 

So let’s dive into the data and help your organization focus on mental health—the right way.

Why do employers invest in mental health benefits?

Let’s start at the beginning. Employers are spending millions of dollars on mental health benefits, and that’s only increasing after this past year. 

A pre-pandemic survey found that large companies expected to spend an average of $3.6 million on well-being programs in 2019. PwC’s Health Research Institute projects employer healthcare spending may increase anywhere from 4-10% in 2021. One of the three main drivers of the increase is more mental health utilization.

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increase in the prevalence of behavioral health conditions could equate to an additional $100-140 billion in healthcare spending.

But while the spending is well reported, the “why” is less discussed. What are companies hoping to achieve by increasing their investment in mental health-related benefits? We used that question as an opener in our survey to understand the motives behind real HR teams, asking: In a few words, what does your organization hope to accomplish by offering and promoting mental health benefits? 

Three main goals emerged from this open-ended question: wellbeing, productivity, and retention.

Wellbeing

Survey responses from HR:

“Reduce the stigma of mental health, encouraging better outcomes among our staff, and encourage them to seek help as they would for any other ailment.”
“Reduce employee burnout.”
“Well-rounded physical and mental health benefits to improve total well-being.”

These sentiments are echoed by many leaders. Joel Gascoigne, CEO of Buffer, has famously spoken out about his struggles with mental health to normalize treatment. His company has a mental health employee resource group and Slack channel dedicated to mental health chats, where Gascoigne regularly tells the teams he’s headed out to therapy sessions. Courtney Seiter, former director of people at Buffer and mental health advocate, elaborates on what transparency about mental health can do.

“It’s hard to be the first to talk about mental health,” says Seiter. “To have someone like [the CEO] say he’s going to a therapist and what he’s working on paves the way for someone else to say something about what they’re going through.”

A survey respondent explained a similar viewpoint on what openness about mental health achieves:

“An employee with a clear mind [who’s] able to talk about issues affecting them is a better employee and all-around person.”

Productivity

Survey responses from HR:

“We want our people to be healthy and happy so they are able to perform and be happy on the job.”
“Supporting the health and wellness of all employees leads to better performance and less time off.”

Mental wellness influences productivity. HR leaders understand this, and it’s one of their main objectives for bolstering benefits.

Ben Isgur, leader of PwC’s Health Research Institute, reaffirms this, telling Marketplace: “Employers are making mental health a priority because it really is in their interest to keep their people healthy and working productively.”

Retention

Survey responses from HR:

“We want to retain quality employees and improve resilience.”
“We just try to do everything needed to keep employees.”

Benefits aimed at mental wellness help keep staff on the payroll. Reports back this up, finding that 8 in 10 employees would leave a job for a company that focused more on mental health.

The demand for mental health resources ain’t goin’ anywhere

As Kelly Greenwood, founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, told HBR: “One silver lining of the pandemic is that it is normalizing mental health challenges. Almost everyone has experienced some level of discomfort.” 

Sure, the effects of the pandemic will eventually taper off. However, that doesn’t mean the need for mental health resources and benefits will decrease with it. In fact, our survey found that demand for care will only increase in the future.

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of HR pros anticipate employees will continue to seek mental health care at higher rates than they did pre-pandemic.
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of employees are on the same wavelength—two-thirds confirm they intend to seek more mental health care.

HR: Moving forward, employees will seek more mental health care than they have in the past.

Employees: Moving forward, I intend to seek more mental health care than I have in the past.

The MVPs of mental health offerings

In positive news, in 2021, most employers understand the importance of mental wellness and offer at least some type of mental health benefit. Only 12% of HR professionals said their company didn’t.

What’s the most popular, you may ask? Well, we were curious too.

While digging into the MVP mental health offerings, we did uncover some discrepancies. For example, despite HR leader’s best intentions, it seems their employees don’t always know about available benefits. Our data showed:

Two-thirds of employers say they offer an EAP, but on the flip side, only one-third of employees are aware of available EAPs. There’s definitely a disconnect there!

Moreover, 21% of employees say their employer doesn’t offer any mental health benefits. That means 9% are unfortunately misinformed (as only 12% of HR folks said they don’t offer those benefits).

LuAnn Heinen, Vice President of Wellbeing and Workforce Strategy at the Business Group on Health reiterates that employees don’t always know where to get care, and the urgency needed to address this problem. “We already had high rates of depression and anxiety, as well as stigma and access problems that prevented many from getting care. And now all that’s compounded.”

The Problem

Employees don’t know how to find or access the mental health resources you offer.  

The Solution

Help employees discover resources and care options on their own time. 

The real impact of mental health-related benefits

Now it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. We asked HR pros and employees about the real results they saw from mental health benefits. What actually makes a difference? Answers were … interesting, to say the least. 

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of HR professionals believe their mental health benefits help employees
37% strongly agreed, 47% somewhat agreed
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of employees don’t feel supported
10% strongly disagreed, 14% somewhat disagreed

This doesn’t automatically point to benefits failure. As a friendly reminder, employees can’t feel supported if they don’t know the benefits exist! (Recall what we learned in the last section: 20% of employees said they thought their employer didn’t offer any mental health benefits). For those team members that don’t feel proper support, it could be a case of crossed wires or lack of engagement.

HR: As an organization, the mental health coverage and related benefits we provide offer meaningful support for employees’ mental health.

Employees: The mental health coverage and related benefits my organization provides offer meaningful support for my mental health.

Room for improvement: areas to expand resources

With a quarter of employees saying they don’t have meaningful support for their mental wellness, obviously, efforts can be improved upon.

HR leaders recognize that mental health isn’t an issue that can be “solved,” there’s always more work to do. Moreover, the landscape of mental health is continuously evolving with workplace ecosystems, trends, and overall cultural shifts. 

When we asked HR professionals to describe what they could do to provide more meaningful support, the open-ended responses revolved around three main themes:

  • More action, in general
  • Mental health days
  • Promote what we have

HR can generally do more

Survey responses from HR:

“I don’t believe we as an organization yet do enough. We currently just check the box, but the desire among leadership is there to improve this facet.”
“We don’t offer many options, and the ones we do we don’t make it easy to obtain.”

There’s nothing like calling a spade a spade. Sometimes we have to admit that we get distracted, priorities shuffle, and we can just plain try harder in some areas. Supporting mental health is one of those areas that respondents got real and admitted they need to up their game.

More mental health days, please

“Make mental health days mandatory.”
“We could offer mental health days.”

This was a pretty straightforward response that we got from quite a few HR folks, that they need to “offer mental health days.” It’s likely because it’s low-hanging fruit. Days off, no questions asked, that allow staff to focus on their mental health are an easy way to support employees no matter what they’re going through.

Elizabeth Scott, MS and wellness coach, explains the magic behind this simple tool: “While one day might not solve heavy underlying problems that lead to burnout, a mental health day can provide a much-needed break to pause, regroup, and come back with greater levels of energy and a fresh, less-stressed perspective.”

Maximize whatcha’ got

“We need to be encouraging employees to use resources available to them.”
“We could make employees more aware that they have mental health coverage.”

The fact is, so many companies offer mental health benefits and resources and they just aren’t tooting their horn enough to their staff. Although it may seem silly when you take a step back, it’s a common trap for busy HR professionals, as our survey participants reiterated. 

Keep your employees up to speed on your company’s mental health resources — without the hassle.

Employees aren’t getting the memo

The mental health benefits are there, but do employees really think their employers encourage them to seek care and utilize them? Unfortunately, this is another area of dispute.

85% of HR folks believe they advocate for their team members to seek mental health care. But only 67% of employees agree.

HR: As an organization, we encourage employees to seek mental health care.

Employees: My employer encourages employees to seek mental health care.

1 in 3 employees don’t believe their organization encourages them to seek care

This data leads us to ask: If HR wants employees to get care, to be happy, healthy, and productive, why aren’t their teams getting the message? Where’s the roadblock? 

Dr. Keita Franklin, Ph.D., Chief Clinical Officer at Psych Hub, offers some sound advice. “All too often employee wellness is seen as just another human resources internal communication or benefits effort.”

Edward Jones CHRO Kristin Johnson, elaborates further saying, “Our people have many needs and we need to address them all if we expect them to give their best. This includes their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.”

To support employee wellness, we need to do more than email employees during Mental Health Awareness Month.

Drive employee engagement with their benefits at critical moments, any time of year.

More mixed messages

On top of unclear encouragement for seeking care, there’s dispute on whether HR teams are actively increasing access to care in relation to needs.

76% of HR professionals think they’re taking action to increase access to mental health care based on an increase in need, but only 60% of employees agree.

HR: As an organization, we are taking action to increase access to mental health care for employees based on an expected increase in need.

Employees: My employer is taking action to increase access to mental health care for employees.

In fact, HR says they’re taking action by better educating employees about how to use resources. But as our data from the employee survey shows, it’s clear this message is getting lost. 

HR: How is your organization taking action to increase access to mental health care for employees?

Education is also a double-edged sword because you run the risk of information overload. Chris Renz, Partner and Co-Founder at Nua Group, LLC, sums it up perfectly: “The available information can be overwhelming, even for those with the interest and patience to reach through it. No surprise that the reaction to comprehensive benefit materials is ‘TL;DR.’”

52% of employees say choosing their benefits is stressful, and they want a personalized approach to benefits choice and usage

Drive employee engagement with their benefits at critical moments, any time of year.

Strategy? What strategy?

Opinions and feelings are important, but we also wanted to explore the nuts and bolts of driving engagement with mental health benefits. As we all know, talking the talk doesn’t mean anything unless you walk the walk. So what are HR teams and employers actually doing to help employees enroll and utilize benefits and resources? 

On top of that, do employees agree that those strategies are in place and working? 

The short answer? No.

When we asked about strategies to educate on mental health benefits, 30% of employees said their organization doesn’t have one. Compare that to only 8% of HR folks who said they don’t have a strategy. Ouch.

What HR thinks they’re doing vs. what comes across to employees

When asked about the strategies used, employees say the strategies their organization use to educate are very passive, especially when compared to HR’s responses. 

Now, we’re not trying to accuse HR professionals of not doing their job. We talk to you every day… we know you’re working hard! We just want to shine a light on the unfortunate fact that many of these efforts are falling by the wayside. You don’t want to invest time, resources, and energy, only for your employees to completely forget or ignore those efforts. 

Kathie Patterson, CHRO at Ally Financial notes, “When you look at the statistics of employees who have some type of challenge, whether anxiety or depression, it was just something people don’t discuss.”

Employees: How do the managers or HR leaders at your workplace educate you on available mental health benefits, resources, or programs?

HR: What is your organization’s current strategy to drive usage or engagement with your mental health benefits?

So, what’s the issue? Hint: It’s employee benefits engagement.

We are not here to drag you down! That was not the goal of our survey and report. Let’s shift focus to the issues and how to solve them. With all these disconnects, a common denominator is engagement with benefits. 

A quarter of HR folks said their employees aren’t actively engaging with benefits. When we asked, “why not?,” the overwhelming response had to do with confusion and communication.

HR: Employees are aware of and using current mental health benefits.

Here’s a sampling of the answers we received when we asked, “What do you believe is prohibiting employees from becoming aware of or using current mental health benefits?”

  • “The company doesn’t think they gain many benefits, so it’s not communicated very well.”
  • “It’s not really discussed.”
  • “Not enough communication through the right channels.”
  • “It’s not known or commonly used—you have to ask for it.”

When we tapped the employees about what’s stopping them from using their mental health benefits (other than cost), a similar picture was painted. The roadblocks don’t have to do with a lack of faith in available resources but plain old confusion on how to use them.

What prevents employees from using mental health benefits? They don’t know what’s available and they don’t understand the offerings.

Employees: What prevents you from using available mental health benefits?

It’s time for something better

The world of benefits is hard; with long-held stigmas and relatively new science, mental health benefits are even harder. As our report showed:

  • Demand for mental health benefits and programs is going to keep on increasing. 
  • Most companies offer mental health resources; unfortunately, not all of their employees are aware of this fact. 
  • Employees aren’t receiving your intended messaging about seeking mental health care—they don’t understand where or how to access care. 

Organizations are investing in their employees’ mental health. But the investments are going unused. 

Why are your well-intentioned efforts failing your employees? Because traditional approaches fail to get your people what they need, when they need it, in a way that’s easily understood. Benefits messages are discussed during open enrollment or at information sessions, but these aren’t the times your employees have a pressing need. Needs arise unexpectedly, at different times throughout the year. And in order to meet the increased demand for mental health care, employee engagement with the benefits you offer must increase, as well. 

Mental health benefits that go unused or underutilized cost companies countless sums every year. And even more significantly, employees aren’t accessing the resources they need to be their best. With the current approach, everyone loses—your mental health benefits are failing your employees. It’s time for something better.

What does “something better” look like? 

  • 24/7 resources and guidance at key moments when your people are already thinking about their health and welfare.
  • Benefits experiences that lead to better decisions and more prosperous futures.
  • Avoiding costly employee confusion when they try to decipher or use their benefits. 

In 2020, you invested in your employees’ mental health. In 2021 and beyond, let’s help employees choose, use and engage with these critical offerings—for their mental, physical and financial health.

Methodology

This survey was conducted in March 2021 by SurveyMonkey on behalf of Jellyvision. It surveyed 100 HR leaders and 300 U.S. adults (ages 18+) who are currently employed.

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