Behavioral Health Goes Mobile

Recent research finds employers are focusing more closely on helping employees manage their mental-health needs, and are turning to technology to aid in that effort.

By Mark McGraw

When it comes to truly addressing mental health issues in the workplace, employers have typically taken small steps forward.  

Consider, for example, a 2014 study from the Disability Management Employer Coalition, which found 37 percent of employers saying that management had "become more open" about dealing with behavioral health issues within their organizations since 2012, when just 25 percent of respondents said the same.

While that 12 percent spike was encouraging, this figure also meant that more than 60 percent of employers said that the stigma surrounding mental health had either stayed the same or actually increased in the prior two years.

A new Willis Towers Watson study suggests that maybe the pace of progress is starting to pick up.

The New York-based firm's 2017 Behavioral Health Survey polled 314 employers, 88 percent of whom say employees' behavioral health is an important priority for their organizations over the next three years.

More specifically, 63 percent are emphasizing the location of more timely and effective treatment of behavioral health issues, with 61 percent prioritizing the integration of behavioral health case management with medical and disability case management.

To help sharpen their focus on helping employees manage their behavioral health needs, a growing number of companies are turning to mobile applications. For example, the survey found 11 percent of employers currently offer apps designed to reduce stress. That number is expected to increase to 38 percent within the next three years, according to Willis Towers Watson. A similarly small number of companies -- 7 percent -- provide employees with apps designed to mitigate anxiety, but 31 percent of organizations will do so by 2020.

Several phenomena have occurred at roughly the same time, which might help explain these rising numbers, says Steve Blumenfield, senior consultant and director of strategic opportunities and alliances, health and group benefits at Willis Towers Watson.

"First, there is heightened awareness of behavioral health and stress-related issues in the U.S.," says Blumenfield, "due to an unfortunate rise in suicide rates and opioid addiction as well as public tragedies that have, in some cases, involved mentally ill people.", such awareness extends to the workplace, says Blumenfield, adding that consumers have embraced emotional health technology as well.

This combination of factors "has helped to make behavioral health more of an accessible topic, even if the stigma around it has not quite been reduced yet," he says. "All of this happened during a period of time in which there is tremendous investment in health solutions that attempt to improve and often 'consumerize' healthcare through apps that are available on smartphones. Behavioral health solutions have benefitted from that investment as well."

Many organizations have also acknowledged the financial impact that mental health conditions have on employee healthcare and productivity, says LuAnne Heinen, a vice president at the Washington-based National Business Group on Health.

Employers "totally understand" this impact, says Heinen, adding that "younger generations appear to be open to talking about and addressing mental health in a way that previous generations have not.

"Stigma has been the No. 1 barrier to getting people access to mental health care," she continues. "Making an app available eliminates that barrier, at least for low-level care, by offering help in a way that feels private and safe."

For employers looking to incorporate such applications into their behavioral health programs, "the first question to ask is not, 'Which app?' but rather, 'What is the problem I am trying to solve?' " says Alisa Trugerman, leader of Willis Towers Watson's behavioral health practice.

"Once that objective is known, the right combination of benefit plan and technology-based solutions becomes clearer," says Trugerman.

With that goal in mind, "a great place to start is with the increasing number of health plan and behavioral health programs that offer apps or other smartphone-enabled behavioral health support integrated as part of their solutions," says Blumenfield, adding that HR leaders considering mental health apps should consider factors such as an application's readiness for the employer-sponsored healthcare environment.

"Many apps in this space begin as consumer solutions, and though they might be helpful, they lack the linkages to behavioral health and benefit programs, and the interoperability that would make them an effective part of the care continuum," says Blumenfield, who also encourages employers to check with their behavioral health program providers to understand how their platforms might already enable integration with apps.

In addition, "you can ask the app or service vendor specifically how they will integrate with or supplement that broader behavioral solution," he continues. "And don't be shy about asking both solution providers to work together on your behalf."

Adding mobile applications to existing mental health programs can indeed present challenges, says Heinen.

Heinen urges employers to ensure their vendors -- including employee assistance plan and app service providers -- refer plan members to each other. In addition, concierge and navigator programs should refer employees to apps when they receive calls for help finding a provider, she says, noting that onsite clinics should also refer patients to apps designed to aid sleep or curb anxiety, for example.

"Some employers are concerned about over-prescribing anxiety, sleep and depression medications, and an app can be a safe and effective first-line treatment," she says.

While mobile apps are not ultimately "a substitute for mental healthcare, apps are quick to access," says Heinen, "and [can] complement health plans and EAP services."

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Apr 26, 2017
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