Companies grappling with how to summon staff back to work during a global pandemic must bear in mind that the race to forge a new normal in the workforce is likely to tax everyone’s mental health.
Bloomberg Law asked Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health, what companies should do before jumping back into business as usual—particularly as employees contend with stressors including closed schools, ailing loved ones, and financial responsibilities.
Bloomberg Law: What mental health policies/programs are mission critical right now?
Darcy Gruttadaro: Improving access to mental health and substance use disorder care. Ensuring that employees have access to timely and effective mental health and substance use care. This was a priority for employers before the pandemic and is now a higher priority.
Employers should be working with their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) vendors on innovative ways to reach employees to reinforce the importance of knowing the early warning signs of conditions that are on the rise right now—like depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and trauma. Employers should ask their EAP vendors to share data showing employee EAP use. If the data does not show a significant uptick consistent with national reports showing mental health and substance use conditions on the rise, then strategies should be developed to remind employees of the benefit and the need to get help early.
Employers should also collaborate with their health plans and third-party administrators in examining data and strategize how the plan intends to meet growing demand for mental health services.
There are two key areas that should immediately be addressed. Tele-mental health is first. Our nation stood up the delivery of virtual mental health care in a matter of months. This was done with health plans offering reimbursement at levels consistent with office visits and, in many instances, covering both video and telephonic care. This momentum must be sustained to ensure that people have continued access to care that works for them whether that is via an office visit, video, or telephonic care delivery.
Also, primary care providers will be on the front lines in delivering care to the growing number of Americans experiencing mental health and substance use conditions. Our nation had a serious shortage of mental health specialists—psychiatrists and therapists—before the pandemic. One highly effective way for employers to support the delivery of mental health and substance use care in primary care is to ask their health plans and third-party administrators to support the expansion of The Collaborative Care Model. This evidence-based model brings a care manager and psychiatric consult into the primary care practice.
BL: Are mid-year changes possible for work-sponsored benefit plans?
DG: Employees interested in mid-year benefit plan changes should consult with their organization’s benefit managers and HR about what is needed that is not currently covered. Health plans have already responded to the pandemic with changes in plan design, including broader coverage for mental health care, so they are likely to consider further adjustments, especially if the need is great across organizations.
Employers should use their purchasing leverage to work with their health plans and third-party administrators to address these unprecedented times.
BL: Are there enough qualified mental health professionals to provide expanded coverage to corporate America?
DG: No. Our nation was experiencing a mental health workforce crisis before the pandemic. Primary care practices provide mental health care to many in our nation for common conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance use. This makes expansion of The Collaborative Care Model even more important to support primary care providers.
BL: What are three things management can do to ease concerns about returning to work?
- Leadership: Those at the highest level of organizations should reassure people that the organization is doing all it can to keep employees safe, enumerating specific steps that are being taken. Also, normalize what people are experiencing in high levels of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty and the toll it is taking on people, including those at the leadership level. Make mental health visible by talking openly about conditions like anxiety, depression, and substance use. It shows that leaders care about employees’ mental health and well-being.
- Communication: People are afraid and need continuous reassurance. So keep a steady stream of information flowing both from management to employees and from employees to management. Consider creating employee resource groups around mental health and well-being so that employees have a forum to share their experiences and strategies for staying mentally well.
- Support: Organizations should take a critical look at mental health services and support offered to employees. This is the time to share warning signs for common mental health conditions with employees and reinforce the importance of getting help early. Organizations should track their data and, given the pandemic, see an uptick in EAP use and health claims for mental health and substance use care. If that is not happening, employers should work with their EAP and health plans to develop strategies to reach employees experiencing these conditions. Also, HR should continue to remind employees about the EAP and health benefits.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.