Mental Health in the Workplace: Why Telehealth Is So Important Leaders who take care of their employees will find they'll take care of their companies; it's as simple as that.
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With the world lurching endlessly between global health and economic crises, conditions have never been more challenging for employers or employees. In the context of record workforce and resource shortages, a drive for sustainability challenges businesses to consider implementing innovations like virtual mental health care in the workplace.
The state of mental health in the U.S.
In 2020, as society grappled with the new normal, the nation's mental health was anything but ordinary.
During this time, the number of adults reporting anxiety or depressive symptoms quadrupled. This was more than a mere spike — the Mental Health Index (MHI) reported a 71% increase in the risk for depression in workers through 2021, and stress, anxiety, and depression have only recently returned to pre-2020 levels.
Research has shown that long-term disasters place society at risk for increased stress, anger, anxiety, depression, and substance misuse. This is partly due to financial insecurity, a loss of confidence in authorities, and disruption to everyday life.
Studies of earlier disasters have shown that increases in mental health service provision may have helped avoid future mental health problems. However, less than half of individuals with mental illness received inpatient mental health services or prescription psychiatric medication in 2020. In addition, communities of color that typically experience difficulty accessing mental health services were disproportionately affected, deepening pre-existing fault lines of health inequity.
Employers taking the lead
If any silver lining can be taken from the disruption and trauma experienced, it is the normalization of mental health and employers' recognition of its importance.
Major companies are acknowledging the responsibility to their workers. For example, sports giants Nike, Bumble, Hootsuite and LinkedIn have introduced access to digital resources, virtual counseling services, and even paid time off for mental health. Smaller companies are following suit. After 2020, 39% of companies expanded their mental health providers to meet the evolving needs of their employees.
But why should the employer take the lead? The answer is two-fold.
As the mental health of the population and workforce declined, employment and productivity declined too. According to the Peterson Institution for International Economics, productivity is falling at the fastest rate on record. Simultaneously, the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) shows that the numbers of people quitting their jobs remain above pre-pandemic levels, with a high turnover in lower-wage sectors.
While the fiscal impact of poor mental health on employers and employees is well documented, there's more to this issue than balance sheets and stock prices.
Employers are expanding benefits to include tele-mental health because it's the right thing to do. The longstanding false dichotomy between physical and mental health needs to be challenged, and employers can do this by offering integrated healthcare. As Dr. Hilary Grant, Medical Director for Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust, notes, "Mental ill health precipitates, perpetuates, maintains and exacerbates acute and chronic physical health problems." Offering physical cover alone is like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom and wondering why it never seems to fill.
An ongoing need for mental health service provision
Though one global challenge is over, others have only begun. According to MHI statistics from February – May 2022, macroeconomic trends and the war in Ukraine have led to a 12% increase in stress levels, a 23% jump in general anxiety, and a 53% increase in the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Researchers examining the impact of the global health crisis on society concluded that the frequency of mental health symptoms made access to mental health services, such as telehealth, critical. Though the challenges are different, the need remains unchanged.
Modern solutions for modern times
As the global health crisis kept people at home, consumers demanded more convenience across all sectors, healthcare included. As a result, healthcare organizations worldwide were driven to treat people where they were, delivering care in out-of-hospital settings.
Technology-driven, remote solutions like telemedicine have become part of the architecture of contemporary healthcare. Though the necessity of staying home has passed, virtual care remains relevant as consumers have embraced the flexibility.
Beyond convenience, virtual solutions underpin equitable access in isolated or marginalized communities, where stigma or a shortage of mental health professionals might otherwise be a barrier.
The rapidly growing field of tele-mental health
In the growing telemedicine sector, mental health has taken the lead, accounting for 53% of all consultations in the US between 2005 and 2017. However, mental health services in the US face two significant challenges; a lack of capacity and inequitable geographical distribution.
Using consumer-grade electronics, tele-mental health is a low-tech answer to both. Multiple studies have shown that clients and providers are satisfied with the transition to virtual consultations. Advantages include:
- Allowing people to be seen in their homes or workplace rather than in an unfamiliar clinical setting.
- Avoiding the inconveniences of scheduling.
- Other personal stumbling blocks, such as arranging transport or a babysitter.
Tele-mental health holds many advantages for businesses, too. Accessible support boosts efficiency by reducing absenteeism and presenteeism, the latter being estimated to cost the United States economy $150 billion per year. As a low-cost option, telemedicine helps employees to avoid co-payments and deductibles, removing financial barriers to medical care and resulting in a healthier workforce.
In these trying times, many will experience varying levels of mental health and mental illness that affect how they think, feel, and act and their interactions, problem-solving, and decision-making. Whether employees have reported or been diagnosed with mental illness, employers must provide mental health access for all workers and, in turn, their businesses.