By Jonathan Berr, who has written for national media outlets for more than 15 years.
Workers struggling with mental-health issues make life more challenging for their colleagues and their employers. Skilled corporate risk managers, particularly at well-funded employers, have a tool to help: the Employee Assistance Program.
These programs are designed to help employees get the mental health services that they need. Yet, this wasn't always the case.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, companies were reluctant to allow mental health services providers to opportunity to promote themselves, said Marina London, a former EAP executive and spokeswoman for the Employee Assistance Professionals Association.
London said that before Sept. 11, only about 4 percent of employees at all companies utilized the mental-health services, which were mostly outsourced. The services offer typically offer counseling on a range of issues
from substance abuse to budgeting
But after the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of employees seeking mental health help skyrocketed four-fold. "There is much less of a stigma" in seeking help nowadays, London said.
Business owners seem to welcome the growing use of EAPs.
Mental illness is one of the leading causes of workplace absenteeism. It also may be a harbinger of costly physical problems later in life such as obesity, which is costing employers billions of dollars in lost productivity every year.
The stakes for businesses are huge. An October 2011 survey conducted by ComPsych, the nation's largest provider of EAPs, found that 29 percent of employees at more than 1,500 companies said they came to work on at least five days during the year when they were too stressed to be effective, and could not properly manage that stress psychologically. That is up from 19 percent a year ago.
"It's good to make sure they seek [employee assistance] services because it affects lots of other things," said Steve Wojcik, vice president for public policy for the National Business Group on Health in Washington, D.C. "A lot of times people have some sort of underlying medical condition."
According to a 2011 government report, Americans spent $135 billion on behavioral health services in the United States in 2005, an amount equal to 7.3 percent of overall health care spending that year.
A 2011 report by Medco Health Solutions found that over a nine-year period from 2001 to 2010, the use of psychiatric drugs among adults increased by 22 percent. In 2010, as much as 10 percent of all adult men and 21 percent of adult women were using antidepressants.
Under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, insurance companies are required to treat mental and physical illness equally when both are covered.
When the law was passed nearly four years ago, employers feared it would raise their costs. While utilization to treat mental health did increase, fears of large cost increases have generally proved to be unfounded, said Rhonda Lessard, Aetna's head of medical cost analytics.
EAPs cost companies between $2 and $4 per employee per month depending on the services offered, London said. EAP costs are falling even as their popularity soars thanks to industry consolidation that has kept prices low.
"Keep in mind that the right question is not whether mental health costs go up but whether overall health costs increase," said Michael B. Friedman, adjunct associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work. "Many of us believe that effective treatment of mental health conditions, especially in people with chronic healthcare problems, will bring down utilization and costs of physical healthcare services."
A recent Government Accountability Office survey found that most employers had enhanced benefits "the removal of treatment limitations, such as the number of allowed office visits" in response to the law.
Businesses that ignore the mental health problems of employees do so at their own peril as workers with mental health issues drag down productivity. Depressed workers who call out sick mean projects fall behind schedule, cutting into profits.
Many employees who need mental health services are unable to seek help. A 2008 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 44 percent of respondents either lacked mental health coverage or were unsure if they did.
Other workers are unwilling to seek help. About half of people with mental and substance abuse problems go without treatment, the figures show.
January 3, 2012
Copyright 2012© LRP Publications