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Mental/Behavioral Health

Data dive: Employers are missing the mark with mental health in the workplace

Gabriel Perna | June 29, 2021

 There is a mental health crisis in America’s workplace and employers need to step it up.  

According to a report from Catapult Health, a Dallas-based digital health company, COVID-19 wasn’t the spark that caused this mental health crisis, but it has forced many employers to confront the problem. Catapult studied more than 400,000 patients across 413 employers during a four-year period looking at depression levels among different race and ethnicity groups.  

“While depression did increase for those at the worksite during COVID, it was there long before. This has just accentuated the problem,” says David Michel, CEO of Catapult Health. The crisis has been especially prevalent among young people. “Younger people are way more likely to consider suicide than older individuals. If you’re in the 20-30 range, those are the individuals that are struggling the most and having the most suicidal ideation.” 

For some groups depression and suicidal ideation actually decreased over the past year, Michel says. However, he notes that Catapult looked at employed individuals and found a small increase among of suicidal ideation and depression but if they included people who became unemployed during the pandemic it would be a more dramatic increase. A survey from Kaiser Family Foundation, in fact, revealed a much more severe increase of anxiety and depression from 2019 to 2021 when including the unemployed.  

Regardless, the problem is entrenched for many subsets of populations. Catapult’s data reveals that Millennials are experiencing depression at a rate 250 percent higher than their Baby Boomer counterparts, and overall, younger employees were most likely to consider suicide, accounting for 32 percent of those with suicidal thoughts but only 12 percent of the study population. Females were more likely to be depressed, as were those who identified as Hispanic or Latino, according to Catapult’s data. 

Another survey, from Headspace for Work, found that employees use of mental health solutions is up from 2020, increasing from 59 percent to 64 percent. It also found that women (58 percent) were more stressed than men (46 percent). Like Catapult’s survey, Kaiser Family Foundation found that Hispanics and Latinos, as well as non-Hispanic Blacks, and non-Hispanics were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorder during COVID.  

Employer response sparks division  

Across the board, there is a wide gap between how employers say they are responding to these mental health challenges and how employees say the employers are responding. According to the Headspace for Work survey, fewer employees think mental health is a priority by their organizational leadership than they did in 2020. Sixty percent of business owners say well-being is a priority in their organizations, yet only half of their employees agree. 

Another survey of employers and employees from the Hartford found a similar disparity. According to that survey, 80 percent of employers said their company culture has been more accepting of mental health challenges in the past year, but only 59 percent of workers agree. This survey found that while 77 percent of employers said leadership at their company encourages conversations about mental health, only 56 percent of workers agree. A February 2021 survey from Mental Health America, Mind the Workplace, found that more than 56 percent of employees do not think their employers provide safe and welcoming environment for employees who live with mental illnesses.    

Don't think of psychological benefits as an afterthought. Bring it on par with the care you give to a chronic condition management program for diabetes, hypertension heart disease, or as a weight loss program.

David Michel, Catapult Health

“Most employers have no idea if depression is an epidemic or problem with their workers,” says Michel. “You have to find a consistent way to measure this over time. You need to assess how your people are doing with an evidence-based tool that can give them good data that can be benchmarked over time. That’s rarely being done today.”  

Along with tracking and measuring this data, Michel recommends that employers communicate constantly and consistently to their employees on the mental health resources available to them. Just giving people the open forum to talk about these challenges can go a long way in reducing any stigmatization.  

Manager training and organizational impact  

Another area where employers often fall short is with manager training, Michel says. In fact, according to the Mind the Workplace study, 59 percent of respondents disagreed that their supervisor provides emotional support to help them manage their stress. More than half of the people in that survey also say that their supervisor does not regularly check on them.  

“I think there is a lot of manager training that needs to be resolved. Depression is much harder to determine than other conditions…it’s subtle. You might not notice it. You need to have managers trained to look for it and determine what they should do when they find out someone is struggling,” Michel says.  

In general, organizational infrastructure around mental health training in the workplace is critical. In a recent Health Affairs study, a trio of public health researchers found that mental health treatments from employers will help improve productivity and reduce number of days missed.  

Moreover, the researchers found that effective treatments often combine clinical treatments with workplace interventions, including “medication therapy, psycho-social treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and job coaching.” In one instance, the Work and Health Initiative (WHI), which integrates vocational and mental health improvement techniques, improved at-work productivity 44 percent (compared to 13 percent of people in the usual care group) for participants.   

At the minimum, Michel says, employers need to provide the institutional infrastructure that supplements traditional health support with a direct pipeline to behavioral health providers. And overall, organizations need to treat it with the same kind of importance that physical health benefits receive.  

“Don’t think of psychological benefits as an afterthought. Bring it on par with the care you give to a chronic condition management program for diabetes, hypertension heart disease, or as a weight loss program. It is in those same categories, and they’re all interconnected. Yet it tends to be one that we don’t spend much time or resources on. But if you look at what’s impacting our productivity and the psychological health challenges that people are having, it’s a huge challenge for companies,” Michel says.  

Homepage image: Freerangestock.com/Jack Moreh

About the Author

Gabriel Perna, Senior Manager, Digital Content

Gabriel Perna is the Senior Manager of Digital Content at Health Evolution. He brings 10+ years of experience in covering the intersection of health care and business. Previously, he was at Chief Executive, Physicians Practice and Healthcare Informatics. You can reach him via email at gabrielp@healthevolution.com or on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna