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Overcoming the Silent Epidemic

A healthy workforce is essential to creating a healthy business, and that means employers must make efforts to assist workers with mental illness in the workplace.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015
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To lead a business means not just chasing a bigger bottom line; it also means caring for and supporting the employees who will get you there. That is why we train and assist our people with career development, workplace conflicts, and personal problems. It’s why in my job as CEO, I work with our HR team to create a work environment that is nurturing, supportive, and provides everything we can to help our employees succeed.  And it’s why companies provide comprehensive healthcare benefits -- because a healthy workforce is essential to creating a healthy business. 

Many of us however, lack the perspective and solutions necessary to address one of the most common -- and potentially harmful -- health conditions our employees face: mental illness. One out of four American workers suffers from a mental health or substance abuse issue, and 70 percent of those dealing with these conditions go undiagnosed and untreated.

The effect that this can have in the workplace is both tragic and costly. Depression, for example, is the leading cause of disability in the country, resulting in nearly 400 million disability days taken per year, and at an economic cost estimated to be $44 billion. Additionally, research indicates that up to 50 percent of all workers compensation claims are due to substance abuse and addiction.

As a former psychiatrist, I can tell you that spotting behavioral-health problems is not easy -- especially by an untrained eye. Making it harder is that for years, employees have felt that they had to keep issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse hidden for fear of losing their jobs or because of the stigma associated with those conditions. In my own practice more than two decades ago, I met patient after patient whose issues were exacerbated with the shame that accompanied their underlying problem. And, back then, there was no guarantee that their health insurance would cover their treatment.

But things are changing in the world of behavioral health for the better, and HR leaders have a wonderful opportunity to lead the charge.

As a starting point, the stigma around mental illness is starting to melt away as more people -- many of them famous -- publicly discuss their struggles, and changes in federal law now mandate that behavioral healthcare must be covered as an essential health benefit of any health plan.

In this new world, our challenge -- and our obligation -- is to make sure that employees are able to get the behavioral healthcare they need, when they need it. As with any benefit, this must be more than a list of behavioral health providers accessible through the health plan’s web site. To be meaningful, we must change our thinking, and with most things in business today, we must embrace new technology.

To begin, we must do more to actively remove the stigma around mental health and substance abuse issues. It takes courage to seek help, and it’s high time that we collectivity recognize this.

We must also create workplaces that support employees’ comprehensive needs — both mentally and physically. Busy-ness at work does not mean performance is optimal. Allowing employees to have both mental and physical downtime will reap more productivity. When an employee takes a vacation, for example, it should be a “full vacation,” with no expectation of answering emails and calls, and no stress over work and projects.

We also should look beyond outward appearances of happy employees and learn more about how our people are doing. Simple things like asking how the day is going, or making a commitment to regularly scheduled check-in meetings can ensure continued communication between you and your employee. Another suggestion is to take meetings “on the road.” Walking meetings outside the office walls may help your employees feel more at ease to share their feelings and concerns.

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Of course, discussing behavioral health issues can be difficult, especially with the concern of crossing a line on employee privacy. Thankfully, some recent advances in healthcare technology may be able to bridge this divide.

Gone are the days where patients must sit in a waiting room to see a doctor. Instead, there are a variety of behavioral health technologies -- telemedicine, teletherapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy -- can all be accessed digitally in the privacy of one’s home. Proven technologies can deliver these and similar therapeutic programs to your organization, and there is unbiased evidence that substantiate these programs actually work.

The use of these technologies can also give HR leaders greater insight into the health concerns of their employee population by gathering population health data, analyzing it, and presenting it in useful ways. For example, analyzing what healthcare topics employees are searching, what services they are seeking, what procedures they are choosing, and which are working most effectively can provide real insights into how an enterprise should spend its healthcare dollars. Solutions are available that can use this data in a private and secure way to make care recommendations directly to employees, and guide them seek out the most effective and efficient care. 

Ultimately, providing effective behavioral healthcare benefits will lead to better management of your people -- and your organization -- and will save on overall healthcare costs. More than that, it will save lives both of those suffering and of those who care for them as behavioral health conditions are ones that touch everyone. It is up to us, as business leaders, to seize this moment and bring this care to our employees.

Dr. Giovanni Colella is a board-certified psychiatrist and co-founder and CEO of Castlight Health. 

 

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