min read
June 4, 2021

Closing the “say-do gap” in workplace mental health

There is often a disconnect between the stated desire to provide support and the actions taken to improve employee mental health.

Mental health is having a long-overdue moment in our national consciousness.

COVID-19 has both laid bare and exacerbated the mental health challenges more than one in five Americans report struggling with on a daily basis. The nation’s employers have responded to this mental health crisis with a sense of priority and a promise to provide resources that support their employees’ mental health needs.

However, the past year has shed light on a growing “say-do gap” within workplace mental health. There is often a disconnect between the stated desire to provide support and the actions taken to implement effective mental health strategies that meet the needs of a diverse workforce. With roughly one third of Americans stating that the coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health, it is essential that employers move to action. The pertinent question for employers is how to do it.

What the “say-do gap” looks like

Before the pandemic, roughly 60% of people who met the diagnostic criteria for a mental health condition never received care. Now, the number of people reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression has increased from 11% in 2019 to 41% in 2021.

The stark reality is not lost on America’s employers, as is reflected in Big Health’s Mental Health Maturity Index (MHMI) data from over 35 large companies covering 2.5 million employee lives. Findings show that 83% of companies have senior leadership who visibly advocate for the importance of mental health to the business. Additionally, employee mental health is a board-level goal for 57% of companies, and 94% of companies state that mental health is a key pillar of their wellness strategy.

Benefits and HR teams should be proud — setting goals and garnering resounding leadership support is a daunting, yet foundational first step in supporting employee mental health. But companies must now turn to “doing” by supporting their statements with action. Big Health’s MHMI benchmark data shows that employers are on the right path, but have room for growth:

  • 50% of companies assess employee stress and mental well-being.
  • 47% of companies ran a mental health anti-stigma communication campaign in the last year.
  • 45% of companies offer child care assistance and 40% offer caregiver assistance.
  • Most companies communicate about mental health benefits one to two times every six months (44%), or one to two times a year (15%).
  • 33% of companies have trained managers or employee volunteers on mental health.
  • 17% of companies measure the ROI of mental health services.

How can companies bridge the gap?

The fact that so many companies fall short of the bar they set for themselves should not be misconstrued as intentional or due to a lack of effort. Rather, it is a reflection of the very complex nature of mental health in general — and the challenges inherent to providing safe and effective mental health care to a workforce dealing with a wide range of issues.

Informed by MHMI data, below are five actionable steps benefits teams can take to improve employee mental health:

  1. Treat employee mental health as a business imperative.
    Mental health has an impact on an individual employee’s well-being as well as a company’s bottom line. Making employee mental health a cornerstone of organizational decision making will help deliver on the promise of improved mental health and, consequently, company performance. According to MHMI data only 24% of companies say that mental health measures are used as a part of the leadership decision making process and only 15% measure the impact of mental health on key business metrics such as health care spend, retention, or productivity.
  2. Ensure mental health solutions are inclusive and equitable.
    There is no one-size-fits-all in mental health care, and the needs of all employees must be considered in order to bridge the “say-do gap.” If a workplace fails to break down barriers and address stigma across employee types, individuals and the company as a whole will suffer. Consider expanding benefits beyond face-to-face therapy to include digital solutions that can provide support to a broader range of employees.
  3. Create a psychologically healthy workplace through training.
    Repetition is key to creating long-term behavioral change, and employers truly committed to embedding good mental health into company culture will support their words with repeated training and meaningful policies. Only 33% of companies have trained managers or employee volunteers about mental health conditions, prevalence, and how to direct their peers in need to appropriate care.
  4. Seek input from employee and business resource groups, then act on it.
    Only 24% of employers indicated that in the past year they assessed the value employees received from current benefits, policies, and procedures. Seek feedback on company mental health policies, benefits and solutions, then incorporate suggestions moving forward.
  5. Measure and monitor mental health outcomes.
    Employee mental health can be challenging to measure confidentially. But companies must make the effort — alongside mental health partners — to collect, examine, and monitor whether services are actually improving employee mental health. Without this data, companies may be paying for an engaging product that’s equivalent to a placebo. It is pivotal that benefits teams look at mental health outcomes, such as remission, and not only engagement data. Otherwise, promises made really are just lip service.

Creating an effective mental health care strategy for your workforce is an enormous challenge. It takes effort, time, investment, and continuous assessment. To ensure you are taking the right steps, it’s important to have a strong partner to assist you in your efforts towards better employee mental health. To learn more about how Big Health and the Mental Health Maturity Index can help support your organization’s mental health goals, take the MHMI survey yourself or download our newest report that unpacks three key learnings from the nation’s biggest employers and their effort to support mental health.

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