Mental Health in the Workplace

Keeping on top of the bottom line is second nature for business owners any time, especially during periods of economic uncertainty. And that means company managers are constantly on the lookout for ways to maximize profits and contain costs. 

While operational efficiencies and controlling spending are often at the top of the list, creative companies also understand that a healthy and engaged workforce can not only increase productivity but can also add to that bottom line. And one area where those efforts can literally pay dividends is in employee mental health.

According to the World Health Organization, for every dollar put into services for common mental health disorders – anxiety, stress, personal relationships – there is a return on investment of $4 in improved health and productivity. But while a lot of companies routinely provide health benefits to deal with physical issues, wellness programs that include mental health services for employees have not always been at the forefront of corporate thinking.

Russell Holloway

But that is changing, according to Russell Holloway, executive director and co-founder of Open Doors, a mental health provider with four locations in Volusia County.

“I think what really kicked the door down and made it acceptable was more and more soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan needing mental health services,” he said. “It has become more acceptable for people in the military to seek counseling and by and large the military has always been at the forefront of certain things in society.”

Holloway said military officials saw an advantage to providing mental health services to people returning from active duty “and that has filtered back into society over time.”

While it seems obvious that focusing on mental health as much as physical health of employees can be a benefit, Holloway said there is also science behind the idea.

“Quite a few studies show that when employers encourage employees to access counseling resources, absenteeism falls, turnover is much less and people are able to dedicate more mental energy to their job,” he said. “It is in any company’s best interest to want their employees to operate at an optimal point psychologically.”

Holloway said that the growth of employee health and wellness programs has mainly been with larger companies. For small businesses – those with less than 500 employees – there are fewer options in many cases.

In a 2018 report on mental health in the workplace, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said community leaders and businesses have a role to play in managing mental health and stress in the workplace, including promotion of stress management educational programs through public health departments and community centers; support of community programs that indirectly reduce risks such as increasing access to affordable housing, providing opportunities for physical activities and supplying tools to promote financial well-being; and creation of systems where employees, employers and healthcare providers team up to promote community-based programs that address mental health and stress management.

At Boston Whaler in Edgewater, a focus on the health and safety of employees is a top priority, including mental health.

“Boston Whaler is committed to the well-being of its employees and offers a variety of programs to support them in their life’s journey,” said Melanie Jamerson, director of compensation and benefits at Boston Whaler’s parent company, Mettawa, Illinois-based Brunswick Corp. “With our benefit program offers, we focus on all aspects of employee well-being which includes physical, social, financial and emotional health. In particular, we offer a variety of employee benefits related to mental health, including an Employee Assistance Program, virtual psychologist/psychiatrist visits through a telemedicine provider, second opinion consultation service and services to help employees find the appropriate care.”

The commitment at Boston Whaler goes beyond just offering programs, according to spokesperson Traci Davis.

“Boston Whaler understands that workplace wellness needs to play a significant role in their employee engagement strategies,” Davis said. “In fact, it is a part of its culture.”

But for many smaller businesses, the options are more limited, according to Holloway.

“A lot of companies will have special programs that employees can use to access local counseling services,” he said. “We’re more of a resource for small businesses.”

Open Door operates the Port Orange Counseling Center, Daytona Beach Counseling Center, Ormond Beach Counseling Center and The Wellspring NSB and works with companies that don’t have formal wellness programs, as well as maintaining counseling relationships with other business organizations, churches and non-profits.

To make counseling services accessible to all, Open Door offers a sliding scale payment program.

“Our policy is not to turn away people when they come to see us,” Holloway said. “We let people decide how much they can afford to pay.”

For Holloway, that means working outside the system a little bit.

“We just adopt the policy that when people come in for counseling, we’ll find a way to do that,” he said.

Holloway said that allows therapists to focus on the patient rather than make a quick diagnosis to satisfy an insurance provider.

“Anytime you work with third-party payers, there is pressure to diagnose to get paid,” he said.

Finding ways to expand access to mental health services is also something Jim Terry, service line administrator for adult and child psychiatry at Halifax Health, is working on.

“Some employers have done a really good job of expanding their benefits,” he said. “I don’t think we get the same level of service for the mental health system as you get for medical care.”

Jim Terry

Terry, who has been in the mental health field for 40 years, said the real need is to get insurance companies to treat mental health services the same as traditional hospital care.

“I think we can expand our services by allowing more access to non-high end care,” he said. “I think sometimes people wait way too long and they end up having to be hospitalized instead of getting the counseling, peer counseling and the stuff they need to get through their week and their day.”

Terry said while on the adult side Halifax Health currently only offers in-patient services, they are looking at expanding into the out-patient area.

“That is because there are just not enough out-patient services available in our area,” he said. “We’ve also talked about doing partial programs, where people can come in during the day and get the benefit of being at the hospital but can go home at night.”

Another issue facing employer-sponsored mental health services is getting the right mental health professionals in the right places to treat those in need.

“When I first came out of school, and that was 40 years ago, I did what was called crisis counseling. The problem with that is the people who did the job were the least experienced. You had the lowest skilled people dealing with your highest need people. We still have that problem today,” he said. “We’re not paying enough to get people to want to do that job.”

The need for employee mental health services is perhaps even stronger today as society deals with the upheavals caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Initially everyone was worried about people that live alone and are isolated,” Holloway said. “What I couldn’t really anticipate was how stressful quarantine was going to be on families with small children. It is much more stressful on small family groups when their energy is pulled between taking care of children and trying
to work.”

Terry said the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

“I think we’re not going to see the real impact for six to 12 months,” he said. “I think what is most important about Covid-19 is there are some hidden things happening because of self-isolation, including substance abuse, depression, anxiety and child abuse.”

Terry said healthcare workers themselves are also affected by the pandemic.

“Healthcare workers have had tremendous anxiety and depression because they are on the front lines,” he said. “We want people to go into stores and walk certain ways, but in a hospital system, you don’t have that option.”

While offering employee assistance programs and other health and wellness opportunities is good for workers, it is also a benefit for businesses themselves.

Brian Pinkalla

At Daytona Beach-based Brown & Brown, employee wellness – both physical and mental – has long been a focus, according to Brian Pinkalla, director of team resources – employment practices, at the company.

“We have a robust suite of resources on the employee assistance side,” he said, adding the company takes “an holistic approach” to employee healthcare.

“Not only mental and behavioral, but also things like work/life balance, physical health, diet, getting good sleep, exercise and tobacco cessation,” he said.

Pinkalla said the company has always had “some kind of employee assistance program” available and that comes from Brown and Brown’s top leadership.

And the focus has not only been good for employee health, but for the health of the company’s bottom line as well.

“Healthy teammates that are doing well emotionally and physically are more productive and they are generally happier,” Pinkalla said. “And those teammates tend to stick around longer. It’s just generally good for business.”

As businesses reopen and more people return to work, the need for mental health services for employees is likely to grow.