August 21, 2015

The enterprise impact of behavioral health

One of the most prevalent healthcare issues for your company is probably the one nobody wants to talk about—behavioral health conditions.

How common is it? 25% of the nation’s working population has a diagnosable mental health or substance abuse issue, and an additional 50% of employees need help managing stress. In fact, up to 40% of missed work is related to behavioral health problems.

We asked Dr. Kent Bradley, former Chief Medical Officer at Safeway, to share his insights on how behavioral health conditions are impacting enterprises today and what companies can do to help address it.

“It’s a huge issue—the prevalence of behavioral health conditions dwarfs that of, for example, diabetes, and they are to be found everywhere in the workforce, from executives to line workers,” says Bradley.

Behavioral health conditions also tend to exacerbate other existing health issues for affected employees, increasing spending on chronic illnesses 2 to 4 times due to the increased severity and duration of these illnesses. So imagine a cardiac patient’s costs doubling, or more.

But despite the fact that behavioral health issues in the workplace exact significant operational and financial costs, conditions like depression and anxiety are consistently under-diagnosed—or even worse, untreated. For example, although 70% of people with depression are in the workforce, the vast majority won’t contact medical professionals about the problem.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that people are suffering unnecessarily. Think about it for a moment. 25% of the employee population has a diagnosable behavioral health issue, and 70% of these go untreated. These individuals are in the office and in pain every day, a cost that is much greater than what can be represented in dollars alone. And this situation persists despite there being many effective treatments available for a wide range of conditions. For example, Center for Disease Control (CDC) research has found that 80% of patients with depression will improve with treatment.

So what’s stopping employees from getting the help that they need? After all, organizations spend large amounts on the direct and indirect costs of behavioral health conditions. In fact, behavioral health is driving more than 20% of an employer’s healthcare spend, and that percentage continues to grow.

As mentioned in our previous post, there are four major barriers that must be solved in order to help your workforce find and commence treatment early on. These barriers have been validated at the population level – tens of thousands of people are surveyed on this topic every year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The problems break down as follows:

Awareness: Many employees aren’t even aware that they have BH conditions—or if they do, they don’t believe that treatment will help.

“This is compounded by lack of awareness even by physicians,” says Bradley. “They may treat a physical symptom like chronic fatigue when the core issue isn’t the physical complaint, it’s depression or anxiety.”

On top of that most, employers lack the data to fully explore the extent of their workforce’s challenges with behavioral health.

Mindset: Employees are often unfamiliar with behavioral healthcare options, or where to turn for help. Worse, many worry about the effect of taking medications or that the stigma of a diagnosis like depression or anxiety will negatively affect their reputation at work.

“It’s something that’s not easily talked about because these issues are often not associated by people as a medical condition,” says Bradley. “In fact, it may be perceived as sign of weakness. It’s much easier to say that you have something physical, like back pain.”

Cost: Many people assume that care for behavioral health conditions will break the bank—in fact, many may not even realize that their employer covers such care. Moreover, finding the right doctor within your network at the right price is often not easy, and employees may struggle with the difficulties involved in such research.

Access: The fact is, not everybody lives near an urban center with multiple healthcare choices. Employees may live in a rural area, or face long waitlists at available locations. Even worse, many may not have the time to get help, or visit therapists. Convenience is key, and not always available.

Leveling these barriers will not be easy, but it is necessary. According to Dr. Bradley, the first step is to acknowledge the problem.

“You have to be open about having the conversation and looking for ways to get people appropriate treatment,” says Bradley. “Companies are finding many creative ways to address this, from data-driven approaches to building the topic into leadership training, but it won’t work until you realize you have a problem in the first place.”

If you’re interested in learning more about why employees are struggling to get the behavioral healthcare they need and how leading companies are using new technologies to improve access to care, check out our guide, “Reinventing Behavioral Health.”

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