Working Well

Guiding Employees Toward Mental Health Practitioners

Employees may not know how to navigate the mental health care system, and more employers are considering benefits that help with that navigation. But should they need to?

Your company is aware of the impact mental health has on the workplace. It trains managers, uses EAPs and communicates relevant information on the company’s intranet. But there’s just one problem: employees still aren’t well.

Today, Oct. 10, is World Mental Health Day, and the theme this year is mental health in the workplace. My colleagues and I have written about mental health before (for example, my Frasier blog series, which is very popular among a few co-workers and my sisters). I love writing about this topic, and it’s wildly important nowadays. There’s so much more awareness on this issue than before, and there’s still ways to go.

Recently health care company ConsumerMedical released a survey on employees’ health care concerns and needs. The results were based on a survey of 1,000 employees at U.S. companies with 500 or more employees, and I found these results valuable and thought-provoking.

  • Half of employees surveyed said their search for a qualified mental health practitioner was a distraction for them while on the job
  • One-in-five of those who consulted an EAP did not find it useful.
  • One-in-three said they had no idea how to find a qualified mental health practitioner.

Robert Halpern, vice president of ConsumerMedical, gave me in an email interview some deeper insights on these data points. EAPs might not help employees identify who is a high-quality mental health provider who’s also accepting new patients, he said. His company is working on a solution through a partnership with health care tech company MD Insider to help identify top-quality, in-network providers using quality metrics. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes.

He listed many of the distractions those surveyed cited. Some of them were searching for help for themselves; others were searching for help for their loved ones. Either way, it’s stressful. “It not only weighs on your mind but also takes time out of your day, for example, to make phone calls or conduct online searches if you are struggling to find a good provider,” he wrote. “It can be very time consuming, and many people take time out of their work day.”

Finally, he said that not only do employees need education but they also need support. “This is true for any kind of health care. The health care system is a nightmare to navigate whether you have a physical or mental health issue,” Halpern said, referencing a recent National Business Group on Health survey that found employers are increasingly looking at benefits that include help with navigation and concierge type services.

My major takeaway from the ConsumerMedical survey was that just because a company offers some solid resources for mental health management, doesn’t mean that will resonate with every employee. Yes, employee assistance programs are useful to some employees, but others may not get anything out of it. Yes, you may talk a good game about caring about employee health, but if employees feel like they don’t have the time or the resources to find a practitioner to see, they’re missing out on a major part of treatment. No, it’s not an employer’s job to treat any illness, mental or physical, but you should be able to create an environment where employees have the time and resources to seek out that treatment without feeling overwhelmed.

It also made me think of the employer’s role in helping an employee navigate the health care system, get quality information on treatment options and find the right practitioner. It looks like employers do have a role, but should they? Is that the best thing for the employer or the patient?

STAT published an interesting opinion piece in August, “It’s Past Time To Include Mental Health into the Doctor’s Office Visit.” The article highlighted a program that integrates mental and physical health care in a team-based setting. Here’s an excerpt:

“Here’s how it works. When a patient visits a primary care clinic, she or he is asked to complete a screening questionnaire. If it suggests mental health concerns, the doctor discusses that with the patient. Mental health professionals are embedded in the clinic and can immediately interact and provide treatment, under the doctor’s guidance. There are no referrals needed or long waits to get help.”

I remember a couple years ago, after getting a minor surgery, feeling so surprised when my doctor asked me about my mental health during a follow-up appointment. Have you recovered physically? How are your stitches? Are you feeling depressed? It didn’t make sense to me at the time why she asked that third question, but the more I researched the topic of mental health, the more sense it made. I just wasn’t used to it.

Do your employees feel like they can speak up in your corporate culture? Do they feel comforted or stressed by your policies?

Reading through this article made me think, yes, if mental and physical health were more closely integrated in a clinical setting that it would optimal for both the patient and the employer. The patient could get connected to care right away and get referrals and information from a doctor they trust, and employers could focus their “improving mental health” efforts elsewhere.

Instead of asking, how can I make sure employees know how to find a mental health care provider? They could consider, what about my corporate culture is not conducive to good mental health? Am I walking the talk? Do my employees feel comfortable talking a mental health day, or do common practices/attitudes within the organization prevent them from doing so?

It’s valuable to read about how employers may be starting to realize that they can help employees in navigating a difficult system. That being said, it seems more logical for medical practitioners who work within that system to guide people in that sense. Will this become a reality, or will the burden continue to fall on the employer?

What are your thoughts? Thanks for reading, and happy World Mental Health Day!

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editorTo comment email editors@workforce.com.