How to make EAPs and mental health benefits work

How to make EAPs and mental health benefits work
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While more companies are trying to prioritize mental health care for a severely burned-out workforce, many employers are still falling short.

Approximately half of employers do not have a formal mental health benefits plan in 2022, according to a survey by Willis Towers Watson, and employee assistance programs remain underutilized — in fact, national usage averages fall under 6%. And yet, 46% of US workers have admitted to struggling with mental health issues, according to insurance company The Standard.

Where have employers gone wrong? At EBN’s Workplace Strategies Agenda, India Gomez, a clinical psychologist and consultant advisor based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and John Troutman, national director of marketing for EAP provider Mazzitti & Sullivan EAP Services, revealed what steps companies can take to ensure their EAPs are accessible and supportive of employees’ mental health care journeys.

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And it starts by dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health struggles that pervades the work world.

“No benefit by itself solves everything,” said Troutman. “But when leaders share their own experiences, it breaks down those barriers that to some extent will always be there with mental health.”

For Troutman, engaged leadership and transparency is key to any mental health benefits plan or EAP. Leaders should not only be trained on how to discuss sensitive topics or concerns with their team members, but on how to share their personal struggles and even their paths to care.

As Troutman pointed out, employees are far more likely to be trusting of an EAP if they know someone in the company who has successfully accessed it. Employees will also be more attracted to EAPs if it’s designed with them in mind. For example, Troutman recalled a client who recently hired workers from the Amish population, and rather than keeping telehealth as a primary point of access, Troutman’s team worked to boost the number of brick and mortar clinics in the employer’s network.

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To further normalize it, Gomez noted that employers can offer EAPs that expand on different aspects of mental health care as well, touching on topics like caregiving, personal development, coping with stress and self-actualization. This helps normalize mental health helps as being another way in which people can care for themselves, rather than some character flaw, explained Gomez.

“I really encourage clients to look at mental health care as well as physical healthcare as part of wellness,” she said. “You don’t need to be ill, and you don’t need to be in crisis to attend to these things.”

Gomez and Troutman both agreed that EAPs can serve as powerful introductions to mental health care if done right — or it can feel like a letdown, especially if that employee needs long-term care.

Read more: How to destigmatize ADHD in the workplace to improve productivity

“How to transition people to more adequate long-term care and to help them navigate systems of care — that is something that seems to be lacking on a systemic level,” said Gomez. “There’s all these barriers to care. And that could also be something that EAP companies and employers are thinking of, and it’s not just on the clinician.”

When Troutman works with employers on their EAPs, one of the first things his company establishes is that every mental healthcare provider offered through EAP is also covered by the company health plans. When an employee does not have health insurance, Troutman’s team will get in touch with the employer, and without revealing the employee’s identity, ask if the employer would be willing to make a financial contribution. “Just about every time the employers are willing to make a contribution or cover those additional sessions because they are genuinely interested in that person’s success as well,” he said.

Gomez and Troutman believe properly supported EAPs have the potential to kickstart mental healthcare for workers who may have no idea where to begin or what resources are available to them. But employers have to create EAPs with intent and transparency.

“EAP providers can support them at the initial point of contact all the way through those covered sessions,” said Troutman. “They can support them with whatever challenges we’ll be dealing with.”

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