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Expanded Focus on Mental Health Bolsters Workplace Wellness

NW Human Resource Association Article

Anna Meiners

By Anna Meiners, MA, Senior Account Manager and Wellness Consultant

There is a direct link between job performance and employee health. To improve employee health and enhance productivity, many employers have focused on health risk factors such as obesity, physical inactivity, and tobacco use. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that wellness goes beyond physical fitness and good nutrition. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. are coping with mental health issues; this does not include substance abuse. The need to address employee wellness holistically has never been so important.

Mental health issues have a long history of being stigmatized and largely ignored within the workplace, yet issues related to poor mental health, such as accidents, health care costs, absenteeism, and lost productivity are well documented. It's estimated that mental illness and substance abuse cost employers, in indirect costs, $80 to $100 billion each year. Work loss and work impairment is more due to mental illness than chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and arthritis. Work stress alone has been associated with significantly higher health care expenses. To have a truly well workforce, employers need resources and strategies available to help employees who are struggling. This is often the role of an employee assistance program (EAP).

An EAP generally offers confidential assessment, short–term counseling, and referrals. EAP consultants also support managers in addressing employee performance issues, concerns about safety, and on–site services following crises. These interventions are important, but typically engage employees after a problem has occurred. Recognizing this need, the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association has put an increased focus on proactive intervention to keep people healthy. This has led EAPs to increase focus on work–life balance, offerings of life coaching, financial wellness programs, training in emotional first aid, health engagement tools and campaigns aimed at reducing the stigma of mental illness. Healthcare providers across professions are now working together to promote the message – mental health is physical health.

Employers who incorporate behavioral health into their overall wellness strategy see the value of making assessment and intervention available. One study demonstrated a 7:1 return on investment by conducting a depression screening program. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also identified that the first step in dealing with excessive work stress – one of the leading causes of mental and physical health problems – is problem identification.

Traditionally, learning about one's state of mental health would require taking multiple time consuming assessments. EAP industry experts recognized the need for a more comprehensive and accessible option to circumvent the high cost of mental health concerns in the workplace. In response, a Behavioral Health Risk Assessment (BHRA) has been developed.

Implementation of the BHRA is similar to a traditional Health Risk Assessment. Employers provide incentives and have access to aggregate reports from the BHRA, while helping employees increase individual mental health awareness.

Increased focus on behavioral health also improves overall wellness. Research shows a high co–occurrence between diabetes, depression, obesity, hypertension, and stress. Medical professionals are finding that this is not a one–way street. For example, it was previously believed that mental health issues led to gastrointestinal distress, but findings now show it may be the other way around. This illustrates that the value of a traditional approach to employee wellness should not be diminished. There is high value in biometric screenings, nutrition services, emphasis on physical fitness, and tobacco cessation. However, it is increasingly clear that employers who take an integrated approach to wellness are likely to maximize improved health outcomes, lower health risks, and decrease health care costs.

For additional information about Integrated Wellness and Behavioral Health Services, contact Anthony Brown at Canopy, Inc. 800–433–2320;

Since 1975, Canopy has set out to decrease employee related expenses and improve quality of life. They provide comprehensive and leading edge services to organizations and individuals nationwide, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), Work/Life Balance Services, Wellness Programs, Onsite Health Screenings, Organizational Development, Student Assistance Programs, Military Helpline, and Executive Coaching. 

An Employer's Guide to Behavioral Health Services, National Business Group on Health, December 2005.–oregon–well/
Abbott Targets Depression Among Employees; Reduces Total Medical Costs, Mental HealthWorks; 4th qtr – 2003.–101/experts recognized the need for a more comprehensive and accessible option–mental–illness–ami–among–adults.shtml
An Employer's Guide to Behavioral Health Services, National Business Group on Health, December 2005.–oregon–well/
Abbott Targets Depression Among Employees; Reduces Total Medical Costs, Mental HealthWorks; 4th qtr – 2003.