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December 23
08:24 2019

Benefits Products & Services

By Thomas A. McCoy, CLU


Unum research highlights the need and the challenges

You would think that mental health in the workplace would be a front-burner discussion topic among business owners and HR professionals. Research by the National Association on Mental Illness indicates that mental health conditions are responsible for 62% of employees’ missed work days. Unfortunately, mental health is the proverbial elephant in the room—a big subject that people avoid talking about.

A recent report issued by Unum found that 47% of U.S. working adults surveyed were aware of a colleague with a mental health problem; 62% of the respondents admitted that they, too, had experienced a period when they felt mentally unwell. Half of them felt this way when completing the survey or within the prior six months.

Yet 52% of HR professionals whose data was included in the report, and 55% of the employees interviewed, said their employers don’t have, or they are unsure if they have, a specific policy in place to deal with workers’ mental health problems.

The report, based on independent research that Unum sponsored, along with research findings from other industry groups and mental health professionals, points to a number of impediments to improving mental health in the workplace. One is confusion among employees about where to get help.

“We have to destigmatize talking about challenging issues and make it easier for employees to acknowledge mental health issues and admit that they might need help.”
—Michelle Jackson
Assistant Vice President, Product and Market Development

Although mental health services are widely available through employers’ medical plans and employee assistance programs (EAP), Unum’s report finds that employees are often unaware of that, or if they know that their employer provides some mental health services, they are still reluctant to take advantage of them.

When asked if mental health resources are offered through their medical plan, 90% of HR professionals said yes; only 47% of employees said yes. When asked if mental health resources were available through an EAP at their company, 93% of the HR professionals said yes, compared to 38% of employees.

“I was surprised by the gap between what employees think is available and what employers are providing,” says Michelle Jackson, assistant vice president, product and market development and behavioral health clinician at Unum. “I was not as surprised by the 62% of employees saying they have felt mentally unwell at some time. We live in an extremely stressful time—work issues, family issues, financial issues. You just have to look at the landscape of society.

“What I was saddened by, or really shocked by, was a finding that 42% of employees have come to work with suicidal feelings. When you think of somebody coming to work feeling that hopeless and overwhelmed, it underlines the need to have resources available in the work setting.”

At the heart of this serious issue, and the focus of much of Unum’s report, is why employees are reluctant to talk about their possible need for mental health services, and what employers can do about it. Having mental health resources available isn’t enough. If people who are hurting won’t talk about their pain, how can they be helped?

Unum’s survey indicates that among employees with an incidence of depression or anxiety, 32% have not told anyone at work; 28% have told their manager; 25% have disclosed it to a coworker other than their manager; 19% told their HR manager, and 20% disclosed their condition on their employment application.

Among the employees interviewed in the Unum survey, 61% said there is a social stigma in the workplace toward colleagues with mental health problems; 81% of employees said this stigma prevents employees from seeking help. Employees said the stigma could lead to being talked about behind their backs (57%), given less opportunity for advancement (47%), and being shunned by colleagues (37%).

Among HR professionals, 51% agree that the stigma exists. Employees and HR professionals in almost equal percentages (49% and 48%) believe the stigma has stayed about the same or worsened in the past five years.

According to the report, however, HR professionals do not view the stigma in the same negative way that employees do; 84% of HR executives said they either were unsure or felt that there are no negative career impacts on employees with mental health problems.

The good news is that for employees who did disclose their mental health problem, only 6% had a negative experience; 52% said it was a mostly positive one.

“The resources have to be available and communicated at the time of need,” says Jackson. “Many of the resources are embedded in handbooks or employer portals and are communicated when somebody is hired. That’s not when you need it. The challenge for employers today is to communicate about the resource in real time when the need arises. That requires employers to be creative in getting the message out.

“We have to destigmatize talking about challenging issues and make it easier for employees to acknowledge mental health issues and admit that they might need help,” Jackson says. “Front-line managers can be a key resource in this effort.

“Many employers are training front-line managers to be comfortable asking an employee, ‘Are you okay? Is there something I can do?’ And if the employee talks about something he or she needs help with, making sure that the manager knows how to connect that employee to the right resources. It’s also important to make sure the employee knows that use of the resources is confidential and will not affect employment.”

A success story

What does it look like when an employer makes a commitment to breaking down the stigma often associated with accessing mental health services? Unum’s report includes a brief description of a recently launched mental health awareness program at Westfield Insurance Company that has achieved some success with this objective.

According to Unum, Westfield, a 2,600-employee property-casualty company, “has been overwhelmed with positive employee feedback” about its campaign branded as “Everybody Has Stuff.” The Westfield campaign includes an employee testimonial, a toolkit for managers on how to start a conversation about mental wellness, and ongoing intranet and email messaging on the topic. The company also has added guided meditation and mental wellness education to its education offerings.

More than 500 Westfield employees have taken an anti-stigma pledge to educate themselves on mental health at work and to help reduce negative perceptions associated with mental health issues.

Unum’s report, titled Strong Minds at Work, was based on interviews with 1,850 employed U.S. adults and with 500 working adults with a diagnosed mental health issue. The interviews were conducted by Dynata, an independent market research company. Further data from 268 HR professionals was provided by the Disability Management Employer Coalition.

The research for the report concentrates on a few of the most common mental health issues: anxiety disorders; mood disorders, which include several variations of depression, seasonal disorder and bipolar disorder; and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Two-thirds of the workers with a mental health issue included in Unum’s research sample had a diagnosed mood disorder such as depression.

Regardless of whether an employee has a diagnosed mental illness, life circumstances can trigger mental strain that makes it difficult for the person to cope, the report notes. “Even seemingly positive life events, such as the birth of a child, an anniversary, or a child going off to college, can have disruptive emotional consequences.”

The report also delves into return-to-work issues that can be a critical part of the solution for employees who are temporarily off work, or have their schedules or responsibilities modified, to deal with a mental health problem. Of those with a mental health issue, 63% have taken time off, and 46% of them were off for more than a week. Close to one-third (28%) gave a reason other than mental health for their absence.

“Unum has a team of return-to-work specialists who help employees return to work from many different conditions, mental issues being one of those,” says Jackson. “We work with the employees who are out on disability to prepare them to return to work. We have conversations with them about handling questions from their peers. We have strategies that we share with managers.

“We need to see a person coming back from a mental health issue the same as we see someone returning from a pregnancy or a knee surgery. They were out of work for a legitimate condition, and we need to bring them back in a supportive, encouraging manner so that they can be successful. That’s the kind of strategy Unum encourages employers to use.”

Jackson says that more companies are recognizing the need to support mental wellness along with financial wellness as part of a strategy to support the “whole person” needs of their employees. “The benefits consultant or broker is a key player in weaving together the resources to support that strategy,” she says.

The author

Thomas A. McCoy, CLU, is an Indiana-based freelance insurance writer.

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