In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, HR Trends spoke with Swapnil Prabha, Vice President of Workforce Wellness Solutions at Unum. Prabha led development of the Unum Behavioral Health solution, which aims to revolutionize the way employers provide behavioral health services to employees.
"We entered the space because we saw an opportunity to do a better job connecting employees with the mental health resources many desperately need," Prabha said. "With our 175 years experience of working to help protect employee health and wellness, we thought this was an opportunity for us to make a difference." In our conversation, she explores the impacts of mental health on employees and their companies, as well as the best ways to break down barriers to care.
Yes, I think it is a pretty hard time to be a worker. First, of course, are the lingering effects of the pandemic. But a lot of other things are causing uncertainty and stress — political division, for example — and an uncertain economic situation. The move to hybrid and remote work arrangements also contributes, as people try to figure out how to take advantage of the new flexibility without harming their careers.
I see it affecting them in four main ways:
Lost productivity. The World Health Organization (WHO) calculates lost productivity due to mental health challenges at over a trillion dollars per year worldwide.2
Health care costs. In 2019, according to an Open Minds Market Intelligence Report, the U.S. spent $225 billion on mental health care.3 Employers paid a large chunk of that directly or through their insurance premiums.
Disability costs. Over the last two years, the Unum team has seen significant increases in anxiety and depression-related disability claims. In addition to the direct costs, when employees are out, other employees often have to pick up the slack, ultimately leading to greater employee burnout and stress.
Retention costs. Recruiting and getting employees successfully onboarded is expensive, and in many occupations it can take a year or more for an employee to become fully productive. If an employee leaves due to mental health issues, that's a huge lost investment for employers.
If employers prioritized mental and behavioral health benefits, businesses could significantly reduce a lot of these costs.
Getting help in a timely manner. One of the greatest barriers for employees is getting the help they need, when they need it. On average, it takes about 48 days to get behavioral health support.4 For someone who is really hurting, that's a long time to wait.
One way to minimize this barrier is to use a digital and virtual programmatic model that helps providers treat patients more efficiently and gives the right care to people when they need it most. By leveraging technology, data and analytics in a smart way, solutions can be scaled to meet the growing demand.
Out-of-pocket costs. When out-of-pocket costs are significant, people will often put off treatment until they are in more severe distress.
Employers can choose solutions that have no cost to employees, but they have to be willing to invest in fully meeting the mental health needs of their workforce. Interestingly, a recent Wall Street Journal article reported that soon-to-be college graduates listed insurance coverage for therapy as the benefit they most want from their future employers.5
Persistent stigma. Many people don't even explore their treatment options because mental health issues are still difficult for them to acknowledge and discuss. It's imperative that employers find a way to normalize mental health discussions and really invest in creating a supportive culture around mental health.
Awareness and education. People aren't used to thinking about their mental health and how they can maintain or improve it. And that's where employer education and awareness programs can have a big impact. Most larger employers already provide some sort of mental health support through their health plans or EAPs. But most of these solutions still tend to place a lot of burden on employees. Employees have to recognize the need on their own and then be willing to do all of the work — and shoulder much of the cost — to seek an appointment.
I think we need to revolutionize that model. Employers need to think about how they are investing to create solutions across the entire spectrum of mental health. They can search for the best individual solutions that address specific mental health needs (the best option for in-person visits, for virtual appointments, etc.) or they can find a comprehensive solution that treats all needs and is able to meet all employees where they actually are.
I would say there's been a lot more conversation around mental health in general since the pandemic. It's become a little bit more normal to acknowledge mental health needs and employers seem to be more open to exploring innovative models to address them.
I think where there is still work to be done is on understanding the cost implications. Behavioral health solutions should be able to report anonymous and aggregated data and insights back to the employer so they know that the solution is working and can justify the investment.
It's essential, of course. Unum Behavioral Health emphasizes executive education exactly for that reason. It's meant for C-suite and senior leaders at the company, to help them understand the value of mental health in general, but also to teach them how to use the tools themselves and then be role models for others. This goes a long way toward normalizing mental health discussions at work and combatting the stigma that can keep employees from accessing support.
Learn how the right benefits and solutions can ease the burden on employees and help keep them happy, productive and engaged. Unum Behavioral Health solves the problems of access, cost and stigma with an innovative set of digital and virtual-first tools that help employees get the right support at the right time, and helps you build an inclusive, open culture around mental health.
1 American Psychological Association, 2021 Work and Well-being Survey, 2021. Survey of 1,501 U.S. adult workers.
2 World Health Organization, Mental Health at Work, 2022.
3 Open Minds, The U.S. Mental Health Market: $225.1 Billion in Spending In 2019: An OPEN MINDS Market Intelligence Report, 2020.
4 National Council for Mental Wellbeing, Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics Providing Expanded Access to Mental Health, Substance Use Care During COVID-19 Pandemic, 2021.
5 The Wall Street Journal, What Does the Class of 2023 Want from Employers? Mental-Health Benefits, for One Thing, April 15, 2023.