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SBJ Economic Growth Survey: The Case for Mental Health in Corporate Wellness

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When it comes to his employees’ mental health, Mostly Serious LLC President Jarad Johnson is totally serious.

The digital web development and marketing company began offering its wellness plan two years ago through insurance agency Employee Benefit Design LLC. Johnson says an important component of the plan when shopping for coverage was mental health care.

“We absolutely care about our employees and we want them to be healthy and take care of themselves,” he says. “But we also want people coming to the office and being highly productive and motivated.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take physical, economic and mental tolls on corporate America, companies such as Mostly Serious are faced with how best to serve their workforces. Some are finding it requires business planning well beyond the current crisis.

The issue is widespread.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2018, the most recent year available, nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults experienced a mental illness. That volume translates to a tangible impact on the workforce. NAMI research in a 2015 study noted 62% of missed workdays in the United States can be attributed to a mental health condition. In the case of depression, the disorder was linked to an average monthly worker absenteeism rate of 2.5 days, with related annual costs of $3,540-$4,600 per employee.

The economic impact of mental health issues on a worldwide scale is significantly larger. A 2019 World Health Organization study estimates depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost productivity.

The pandemic and civil unrest experienced in recent months are contributors to lost time at work that go above and beyond normal stress levels, says Adam Andreassen, chief operating officer at Burrell Behavioral Health. He says there’s a need for businesses to be more proactive to crisis situations involving its workforce and mental health issues.

“When you look at the overarching themes of prevention, that’s where a lot of the companies that are really ahead of the game are saying, ‘We want to be involved in preventative care every bit as much as responding to crises in the moment,’” he says.

Burrell is making workplace inroads via multiple partnerships over the last couple of years, such as Mercy Springfield Communities, Springfield Public Schools, Drury University and Fordland Clinic.

At Drury, Burrell is embedded in the Panther Clinic operated by CoxHealth. A behavioral health consultant works at the clinic to help students with stress and emotional concerns.

The partnership started last year, and it’s part of a campuswide focus at Drury on mental health. Faculty and staff have had access to mental health services through the university’s employee assistance program for years, says Marilyn Harris, chief of human resources and diversity and inclusion officer. Drury spends $4,000 a year for the program through Overland Park, Kansas-based New Directions Behavioral Health, she says.

Aside from mental health, the program also assists with issues such as family relationships, workplace conflicts, and alcohol and drug use.

Its usage rate by Drury employees was 14% for the previous plan year, which ended May 31, Harris says. The national average through such clinics is is 4%-6%.

“Our average is higher and that’s good because we’re getting our return on investment,” she says. “That hopefully ensures that our employees are managing their mental health in addition to their physical health. That then allows them to come to work and be productive.”

In the United States, over 97% of companies with more than 5,000 employees and 80% of companies between 1,001 and 5,000 employees offer an employee assistance program, according to the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association.

One large Springfield employer, national trucking company Prime Inc., is in the midst of expanding its truck driver wellness program. Matt Hancock, coordinator of driver health and fitness, says he’s compiling health insurance data for the company’s more than 6,000 independent contractors. Telehealth services are offered in the plan options to be presented to drivers in August.

“This is a particularly at-risk population with drivers and just in the industry in general,” he says, noting almost a third of commercial truck drivers experience sleep apnea. “That can lead to mental health problems down the road, like chronic fatigue, stress and anxiety.”

Officials at Mostly Serious have connected happy employees to revenue production. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company is on pace to grow revenue this year to $1.7 million, from $1.25 million in 2019.

“It has been much more of a focus that we make sure employees take advantage of the incentives they have,” he says.

Johnson says the company offers an unlimited vacation policy for its 14 employees to recharge their batteries physically and mentally. The wellness plan includes a gym membership.

“We know that the cost of turnover is high. We know that burnout is pretty high in a lot of industries,” he says. “You need to pay attention to providing employees with mental health benefits as a company, ensuring that the policies and procedures allow people to live a healthy, balanced lifestyle. If so, you’re going to save money in the long run as a company.”

Burrell’s Andreassen says there is a compassionate and humanitarian element to businesses wanting their employees to be in a good mental and physical condition.

“Obviously, people aren’t robots,” he says. “When you’re in the workplace, the goal for that job may be productivity. But the goal for that person is to be able to be sufficiently focused while still managing and maintaining all of the aspects of their personal life. … It’s not just about being productive. If you are stressed, distracted, overwhelmed and not your best self, then it’s going to affect your decision making.”

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