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Removing the Stigma of Mental Health

Many people feel uncomfortable talking about mental health. Thanks to a long history of movies, books and news stories, the term “mental illness” may conjure up disturbing images of hallucinating schizophrenics, mass shootings and psychotic serial killers.Psycho movie image

The reality of mental health disorders is very different. In fact, these issues touch many of us:

  • One in five Americans is diagnosed with a mental health issue each year.
  • More than 40 million Americans live with depression.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24.
  • Drug overdoses are the number one killer of Americans under the age of 50.

Despite these startling and far-reaching statistics, mental health issues continue to be seen as a source of shame and something to be kept quiet and out of public view. demi lovatoHundreds of celebrities have opened up and shared their personal battles with depression and other serious mental health issues – from singer Demi Lovato to swimmer Michael Phelps to actor Leonardo DiCaprio – and this has shined a much-needed light on the subject. Still, the stigma around mental health remainsleonardo dicaprio

For employers, mental health issues are a major drag on productivity and driver of healthcare expense. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States, and the CDC estimates it’s also the cause of 200 million lost work days per year, costing employers $44 billion in lost productivity. Compounding the problem is the common co-existence of medical and behavioral health disorders:

  • 68% of adults with a mental disorder have at least one medical disorder
  • 29% of adults with a medical disorder have at least one mental health disorder

Why don’t employees seek help? According to Suzanne Delbanco in How Employers Can View Mental Health Stigma, employees may be afraid to admit, even to themselves, that they need support with mental health. Or they may not be aware that their suffering may be due to anxiety or depression. Those who do recognize the need for treatment may be afraid to leave the office for therapy appointments lest co-workers or employers notice. Many fear, if their employer finds out they have a mental health condition, there may be negative repercussions. A 2017 survey shows that 31% of employees say they would be afraid of being labeled as weak, and 22% fear it would impact their opportunities for promotion.

Employers can play a major role in removing the stigma of mental health issues and it’s in their best interest to do so. Here’s what we’ve seen work:

  1. 97% of large companies (over 5,000 employees), as well as an estimated 75-80% of mid sized and smaller companies, have an Employee Assistance Program. Your EAP is the most powerful weapon in your arsenal to combat mental health stigma and increase employee access to help. This is certainly the case if you have a comprehensive EAP, but is unlikely to be true with a “free” EAP. So-called “free” EAPs embedded in disability insurance products generally provide an EAP in name only; their business model only works if employee engagement is minimized, so they will be unlikely to serve any meaningful role in creating employee engagement.
  1. Awareness and education are critically important. Your EAP should be very willing and adept in helping to build awareness and educate your employees. Initiatives we’ve seen work include:
  • Hosting lunch and learns and guest speakers on behavioral health topics in the workplace
  • Offering a monthly topical webinar for employers to use to educate their employees and normalize behavioral health issues
  • Providing educational newsletters.
  • Providing special presentations to educate managers and supervisors about key mental health issues: mental health first aid, suicide prevention, PTSD awareness and substance abuse (including the opioid epidemic)
  1. Promote awareness of the EAP and easy access to behavioral health treatment services at company benefit fairs.
  1. Create a culture of acceptance. For example, when speaking to employees about medical benefits, include behavioral benefits and issues in the conversation, thereby normalizing behavioral health. Also, incorporate language in company policies to prevent stereotyping and eliminate improper language/ labeling or bullying of employees with behavioral health challenges.
  1. Provide access to an Interactive Screening Program allowing employees to anonymously take a screening test for stress, depression and anxiety. Then, if they wish, they can dialogue with a behavioral health professional to understand their screening results and, if needed, connect them to the appropriate form of assistance – a therapist, psychiatrist, treatment program or self-help or support group.
  1. Develop a Peer Support Program to train employees to assist distressed employees and encourage them to access professional behavioral health services.
  1. Larger companies should consider placing behavioral health clinicians on-site at workplaces to assess, refer and provide short-term counseling. A 2015 survey by the The National Association of Worksite Health Centers claims that 45% of all employers offer some sort of on-site health clinic. Adding a behavioral health clinician to an on-site clinic is a natural wellness extension and further helps normalize the concept of mental health. If you’ve ever watched the popular Showtime series Billions, you’ve seen one of the main characters serving as the on-site therapist for fictional company, Axe Capital.
  1. As behavioral health professionals, let your EAP help you draft policies that permit employees to leave work to keep behavioral health or EAP appointments. Structure benefits and policies with the awareness that many areas are underserved in terms of psychiatrists, and alternatives to psychiatry may be needed.

Employers can make a big difference in encouraging and enabling employees with mental health issues to seek help.  We suggest this is the perfect time to start.

Five Steps to A More Effective EAP

You made a smart decision. You researched comprehensive EAP (Employee Assistance Program) plans and now you’re interviewing providers in order to offer your employees a host of customized behavioral health services as a valuable new component of your benefits package. Of course, your motives are not entirely selfless. You understand that a customized EAP plan from a specialty provider can decrease absenteeism, increase productivity and lead to a happier, more loyal workforce.

Now that you’re ready to offer your employees all these wonderful, helpful tools and services, how do you make sure your employees take advantage of them? We offer five suggestions:

Build Awareness and Education

If you need to communicate a small process change, a mass company email might be sufficient. But to increase awareness of a major new benefit – or to make it part of your employee onboarding process – something more thorough and intimate is required. Furthermore, most of your employees know very little about an EAP or all it has to offer, so education is as important as awareness. Consider the following:

  • Team or department meetings
  • Company lunch and learns
  • Develop easy-to-understand collateral
  • Develop an ongoing internal marketing program
  • Designate a subject matter expert to answer questions (typically a member of your HR team)

It’s important to keep in mind that increasing awareness requires more than a one-time attempt. You need to be sure that you’re reaching employees with the right message and with enough frequency that they’ve internalized it and remember it. Think of it like an ad on TV. If you’ve only seen the ad once you’re not likely to remember it. It’s only after seeing the ad several times that you remember the message.

Of course, if your EAP provider is a good partner, you won’t have to go it alone. They should be providing marketing materials, contributing ideas and working with you hand-in-hand to help you develop the right communication plan.

Make It Easy 

A comprehensive EAP plan has dozens of benefits and offerings, including multiple methods of reaching out for help. This could cause first-time users to be too confused, overwhelmed or apprehensive to dive in. That, of course, defeats the purpose of any EAP – employees must be able to take advantage of the services they need without needless barriers.

Make sure you find an EAP provider that can customize your plan to your employees and company, so you’re not offering nonessential or extra services. They should also help ensure the products and services are presented clearly and accessed easily. Don’t complicate things; if an employee needs help, it should be as simple as texting, making a phone call or sending an email.

Address Privacy Concerns

Make sure employees know that their information is secure and won’t be shared. Because EAPs can deal with issues involving mental or behavioral health, personal finances and/or legal issues, employers must be aware of confidentiality and legal concerns surrounding those services and communicate how each employee’s interaction with the EAP will remain completely private.

In fact, Federal law requires confidentiality of alcohol and drug abuse records, for example, and there are penalties for unlawful or unauthorized release of information. These same regulations also prohibit the implicit or negative disclosure of information to anyone in the company besides the HR department. EAPs – or the companies that offer them – are simply not allowed to release any information without signed consent, regardless of the nature of the problem.

According to The Society for Human Resource Management, employees are more likely to use your EAP services if they understand this use will be strictly confidential. Additionally, if they fear using the EAP for certain services will have a negative impact on their careers, no one will participate.

Our advice: Be strict about confidentiality and communicate that policy clearly to your employees.

Address Behavioral Health Stigma

Another reason some employees may not take advantage of all the services in your EAP is the stigma of mental or behavioral health issues. The Mayo Clinic’s website calls stigma “a negative judgment based on a personal trait; in this case, having a mental health condition.” This stigma and accompanying discrimination are linked to outdated beliefs that mental illnesses don’t have the same biological foundation as physical issues, plus repeated media depictions of people with mental illness as being dangerous and unstable.

In an article from Psychology Today, Graham C.L. Davey Ph.D. points out the widespread nature of these depictions. “People tend to hold these negative beliefs about mental health problems regardless of their age, regardless of what knowledge they have of mental health problems and regardless of whether they know someone who has a mental health problem.”

Removing the stigma is no simple task. It would require the reversal of centuries of ignorant and prejudicial thought and actions. A cultural change is needed. Employers can’t drive this type of change alone, but they should have an interest in playing an important role in driving change.

Employers can start by providing a forum for open discussion. One idea is to bring in a behavioral health professional to talk about the facts, dispel misconceptions and to discuss the bravery and benefits of seeking help. The primary goal of such an event is to give each employee the confidence to get help when they need it without fear of professional or personal repercussions. Another idea is to be sure when messaging employees about physical health or well-being that you include emotional/psychological health messages, as well.

Tell the Whole Story

As long as you have a comprehensive plan, you need to make sure you tell your employees the whole story. Don’t overly focus on just the serious behavioral health issues like substance abuse; communicate the full breadth of services your EAP provides, which may include:

  • Financial consultations
  • Legal consultations
  • Eldercare and/or childcare referrals
  • Identity theft recovery
  • Professional development
  • And many more

Learn More

Want to know if you have the right EAP for your company or learn more about increasing employee engagement in your EAP? Click here and we’ll be happy to help or call Espyr at 866-570-3479.

 

A Surprisingly Effective Solution for Stronger EAP Engagement

One of the most common criticisms of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) is the low level of employee engagement. The National Business Group on Health estimates that only 5% of employees use their employer’s EAP annually. This estimate is consistent with other sources, which quote utilization in the single digits. Of course, this low engagement estimate includes employers who have signed up for “free” EAPs bundled in a disability insurance plan. These employers may only be interested in an EAP in order to check a box, so they’re not aggressively promoting their programs. In fact, providers of these “free” EAPs are banking on low utilization in order for their economic models to work.

There are many ways to increase EAP employee engagement, and a good EAP provider should be very willing to assist you with your efforts. Examples of some important tactics include:

Building better awareness – Awareness of EAP plans and the breadth of services offered tends to be very low in many companies. More and better communication of the EAP and the services offered is one of the highest impact steps an employer can take.

Customizing the EAP – Comprehensive EAP providers should work with you to customize the services they offer, as well as how those services are delivered, to meet the unique needs of your company and your employees.

Senior leadership engagement – When employees see their leaders are “walking the walk” by engaging with their EAP, it adds credibility and legitimacy.

Make it part of the company culture – Progressive employers recognize the importance of behavioral health, yet most employer wellness programs only focus on physical health. Your EAP and behavioral health services should be integrated across benefit programs.

Overcome the stigma – Sadly, many employees who would most benefit from the services of an EAP refrain from doing so because of the stigma often associated with mental health and EAPs. Making it part of the culture and having senior leadership set the example will help break down the stigma and increase engagement.

Emphasize Coaching to Help Overcome the Stigma

Another potentially more powerful way to overcome the stigma associated with EAPs is to get employees to think of their EAP in a different light. Yes, EAPs are designed to address critical behavioral health conditions like substance abuse or depression. But today’s EAPs offer so much more. Often, employees need advice, direction or just someone to talk to; they don’t need formal counseling. What they need is a coach.

Progressive EAPs offer a broad array of coaching services. And, while EAPs may have a negative connotation to some, coaching is generally always viewed positively. That means more of your employees will seek the help they need.

Don’t be confused and think that coaches are the JV team. Good coaching programs from comprehensive EAP providers will be selective about their coaches, only hiring those that are mental health professionals with master’s degrees.

Types of Coaching Programs

Coaching programs can effectively address the most common issues facing your employees every day – relationship issues, financial concerns, difficulty transitioning into a new position or new location, and leadership issues. Any one of these issues can effect job productivity, engagement levels and job performance. Examples of the types of coaching programs available include:

  • Personal Coaching – Helps employees through issues or events that are impacting their lives in some way. These could be relationship issues that are personal or work-related.
  • Health Coaching – Helps employees through health issues such as having trouble sticking to a diet, handling stress or quitting smoking.
  • Financial Coaching – As earnings or saving issues leaves more employees stressed and looking for help, the need for financial coaching becomes increasingly relevant. Financial coaching can help them with personal money management and related financial issues.
  • Leadership Coaching – Helps managers and supervisors recognize and address the behavioral health issues that are creating barriers to advancement or greater leadership success. Leadership coaches in a comprehensive EAP program will help managers identify those issues and guide them in developing and sticking to an improvement plan.

If you’d like to know more about how coaching programs can help your company, call Espyr at 866-570-3479 or go click here.