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Here's why companies should focus on their workers' "whole health"

Business benefits by addressing employee emotional well-being


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Twenty years ago, many employers did not consider the impact of tobacco in the worksite.  Ten years ago, we struggled with obesity as a condition that could be addressed with strategies and tools that improved lives and productivity.  Today, we are realizing we can take on whole health by tackling behavioral and emotional health issues.

The truth is, mental and physical health are connected and managing just one aspect of health, while neglecting the other, doesn’t adequately address the goal of improving overall well-being. Many people with chronic health conditions also suffer from behavioral health disorders as well. Health care costs for treating people with both kinds of conditions can be two to three times higher than for those individuals without co-morbid mental health and substance use conditions.

Poor mental health can not only lead to poor physical health, but can also impact employee performance as well. Eighty percent of people suffering from depression reported some level of functional impairment because of their depression, and 27 percent reported serious difficulties in work and home life, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In a three-month period, patients with depression miss an average of 4.8 workdays and suffer 11.5 days of reduced productivity. Those lost work days can cost employers as much as $44 billion annually.   

So, given the costs involved, it may come as no surprise that employers are increasingly recognizing the benefits of promoting “total well-being.” According to a recent study by the National Business Group on Health, 87 percent of employers are now offering emotional or mental well-being programs. Moving beyond the traditional wellness programs of biometric measurements and physical activity, these new offerings are designed to help employees with a wide range of issues, including reducing stress and improving resiliency. Re-connecting behavioral health and physical health is the goal to a “total well-being” approach.

Today, many services for mental health (or, “behavioral health”) are covered benefits in health plan offerings. The services should be accessible and affordable. But there are many barriers: finding a behavioral health provider, getting a timely appointment, and even moving beyond the stigma of getting behavioral health services for you or a family member. Smart employers are working hard to help their workers overcome these challenges. Tire manufacturer Michelin, for example, makes EAP counselors available at its on-site health clinics.

Savvy companies should also train managers on how to identify mental health issues and to be vocal about the commitment to accommodate mental health conditions as they would any other medical condition. Currently, just 15 percent of employers are equipping their managers with the skills they need to recognize mental health problems and help employees obtain treatment prior to taking disciplinary action for related performance issues.  

Employers who take a proactive approach in integrating mental health into their wellness programs are seeing positive results. Aetna has been offering yoga and meditation classes since 2012 and found that employees who attended at least one class reported a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and a gain of 62 minutes of productivity per week per person. Michelin’s behavioral health initiatives have yielded a 30 percent reduction in related-mental health outpatient claims.

While the “whole health” movement is still growing and evolving, it’s clear that behavioral health will remain a key part of the overall wellness equation for years to come.

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Donna Marshall

Donna Marshall, MBA, is the Executive Director of the non-profit Colorado Business Group on Health (CBGH). The CBGH acts as a catalyst in the community to improve quality and value in health care by advancing the purchaser role.  For more information: go to www.coloradohealthonline.org

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