Mental health is the newest arms race for companies looking to retain and attract talent.
Roughly 90 percent of employers surveyed in Wellable Labs' 2022 Employee Wellness Industry Trends Report released in January reported increasing investment in mental health programs. Another 76 percent said they were boosting investment in stress management and resilience programs and 71 percent were increasing investment with mindfulness and mediation programs.
After more than two years in a global pandemic, one that involved isolation and stress, employers have recognized how untreated depression and anxiety impact their bottom line, said Elaine Coffman, president of Lockton Michigan, an insurance brokerage and risk advisory firm in Grand Rapids.
"We've seen the data," Coffman said. "There is a statistical uptick in medication use around anxiety and depression and emergency room use around anxiety and depression. Employers are payers and we're seeing the general costs of health care around those diagnoses go up. There are increased absenteeism around anxiety and depression. Employers have a vested interest in this beyond the workforce and culturally. It's impacting business metrics."
Employees with unresolved depression see a 35 percent reduction in productivity, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Depression among the workforce costs the U.S. economy roughly $210.5 billion a year — more than the annual sales each of Costco and Chevron and Microsoft — in reduced productivity, absenteeism and medical costs. That's an average of 27 or more lost workdays annually per person in the U.S. And about 40 percent of employee turnover is caused by stress.
The problem is so pervasive, a work group inside the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity was created to offer employer strategies for managing employee mental health, trauma and resiliency.
The group released its findings earlier this week. It is recommending employers adjust policies to benefit mental health, evaluate the effectiveness of their current Employee Assistance Programs, add employee resource groups and add mental health to existing safety committees (most commonly found in unions).
"While we are incredibly proud of the work that has been done to come up with these proposals to improve mental health in the workplace, we realize there is still a lot of work to be done in order to develop and implement these and other workplace mental health strategies," Deputy Director of Labor Sean Egan said in a news release. "We hope employees and employers across the state will join us in reviewing the report findings and recommendations and build on mental health strategies that will have a great, positive impact on employee wellbeing in addition to protecting the employer's bottom line and our communities."
The group also recommended to other agencies in the state government to give procurement and grant priority to companies that have enacted mental health improvement strategies and to develop a resource hub to aid employers in enacting said strategies, among other recommendations.
Gretchen Moran Marsh, a private practice clinical psychologist who specializes in providing mental health care in the workplace, said individuals seeking care on their own are waiting as long as 50 days to see a therapist. That just goes to show how important having options available in the workplace is becoming, she said.
"We don't have enough mental health professionals," Moran Marsh said. "Bringing mental health into the workplace allows a smaller number of providers to address more people. I can reach far more people in less time and that's critical in the current environment."
There are an estimated 50,000 vacant positions for direct care workers in the mental health or behavioral health sector across the state — about a 21 percent vacancy rate, according to data from the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan.
At the same time, patients and employees are asking for more help. In 2021, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan reported a 27 percent increase in the use of mental health services among its 4.3 million members.
Moran Marsh provides group sessions to employers — including Alix Partners, Plunkett Cooney and Walbridge Co. — to cover more minds.
"When we look at empirically validated ways of therapy, it can be taught to a mass group," she said. "I know the tools and can tell employees about the value of sleep, leisure and eating well. How you feel and how you behave are interconnected, so if we can improve one we can improve the other."
With an estimated 40 percent of Michigan residents suffering from untreated mental illness, these experts believe providing help on the clock in a work environment could improve service use at a time when violence and other extreme events around the country are occurring.
"Making it easier for people is the key," said Coffman, of Lockton Michigan. "I can now see a therapist on my lunch break instead of trying to find time among the growing obligations of children, school and family."
The most common reason for an individual to not seek mental health care is cost, potentially limiting who can access mental health care based on the size and sophistication of their employers, Coffman said.
"What drives people out of having this care is when they have to pay out of pocket," she said. "Small employers usually offer high deductible plans where the workers usually have to pay the full cost of that mental health visit. If it's a question of rent or milk, a therapist drops off the necessity list."
But Coffman said the increase in workplace violence proves the importance of these efforts and she urges smaller companies to join the fray.
In 2019, about one-fourth of American workers experienced at least one incident of workplace violence, according to a survey by theSociety for Human Resource Management. In 2021, the number approached 30 percent.
Coffman said the best way to increase mental health services is for management to be better trained and more engaged in the services.
"An equal challenge is not just what they offer but how you engage all levels of management to identify when an employee is struggling and do something," she said.