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Employee Mental Health Benefits — How to Choose the Right Plan

4h March 2024
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 minute read

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Currently reviewing your organisation's employee mental health benefits? If you are a manager or HR professional, then you’ll know that this is a huge enterprise. For instance, do you want a plan from a private medical insurance provider (such as Bupa, Axa, Vitality, Aetna, WPA, Healix, Cigna International or Aviva)? Or an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)? Or a corporate mental health plan from an online platform? Or a combination of these elements? The choices can feel daunting.

Also, what kind of services will you be looking for? Access to free confidential therapy for employees? Mental wellness training across your organisation? Online resources and courses? It’s worth noting that not all mental health plans, packages and platforms are the same — for one thing, access to a short course of general counselling might not meet some people’s deeper ongoing needs. 

Plus employee mental health is about so much more than the wellbeing of individuals, important though that is. It can also have a big impact on productivity, motivation, interpersonal relations, staff turnover, absenteeism, morale and overall workplace culture. Mental fitness is something that an organisation has to work towards collectively too, including in the form of group training, awareness initiatives and deeper cultural shifts. But if you’re not a mental health professional, then how can you assess the difference between differing employee benefits offerings? Where do you even start?

Read on for our expert guide outlining the six key questions to ask before making your decision:

1. Who and what is covered?

Not all employee mental health benefit packages or business health insurance policies are made equal. The truth is that some may only offer a wellness “sticky plaster” rather than comprehensive support. For this reason, it’s really important to reflect on how broad and impactful you want your EAP, policy or plan to be. So ask yourself the following: 

i) What are the exclusions? — can deeper-seated, more complex issues, including psychosis or suicidality, be addressed or do they need to be referred on elsewhere? If you’re going with an insurance provider rather than an EAP, then who and what do they exclude? Chronic conditions like addictions, eating disorders and issues relating to neurodiversity? Or are pre-existing conditions excluded, meaning that if someone has been treated for depression in the past, then they won’t be eligible for help now? Will this really meet your team’s needs? 

ii) Do employees have to have a diagnosis to be able to use your insurance? — or can it be used as an early intervention, to prevent issues from developing or worsening? For instance, if an employee is noticing that they’re procrastinating, lacking confidence, having difficult interactions with colleagues, can they access support before the situation escalates to higher levels of stress and anxiety?

iii) Do people need to opt into your health insurance scheme? — if so, what are they choosing to opt into? Is it effective?

2. What kind of therapies are being offered?

There are many different types of therapy and not all are suitable for every issue. That is why it is crucial to assess the quality and breadth of therapies on offer from any employee mental health benefits plan. For instance, some people need more than just a listening ear for the short-term—instead, they might need access to an expert with a specific set of advanced qualifications, often on an ongoing basis. In other words, people who are facing complex, traumatic and deep-seated issues will probably need support from specially trained mental health professionals using clinically proven methods. 

So rather than the general counsellors offered by more basic insurance plans and EAPs, they might need to see a specialist psychotherapist or clinical psychologist who won’t have to refer them on to someone else. With this in mind, ask yourself the following: 

i) Does this plan or service represent best practices in current mental health guidelines? — for instance, over the past decade or so, a number of effective approaches have risen to prominence, including trauma-focused therapies such as EMDR. So if a health insurance provider is only offering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or counselling, then this may not support deeper-seated or more long-term issues.

ii) How effective is the support being offered? — in other words, a superficial self-help approach isn’t necessarily going to be enough for people who are grappling with bigger issues.

iii) What are the length of courses and sessions? — some providers only offer short-term sessions consisting of 20 to 30 minute phone calls. At best this is a superficial solution, at worst it could even result in a person feeling worse and reluctant to reach out in the future.

iv) What kind of language is used by the provider? — do they talk about progressive concepts like ‘mental fitness’ and ‘resilience’, or do they focus on more traditional — perhaps even old-fashioned — mental health terminology focusing solely on ‘mental illness’? Do they address the prevention of issues and maximising people’s potential, or just focus on treating problems and conditions as they arise? 

3. Does it address the specific needs of your organisation?

Mental health is about more than the needs of individuals — it’s also about the wellness of your overall organisation, including culture, atmosphere and working relationships. That is why it’s important to choose a health plan that operates well on an operational level, creating true and lasting organisational change. So ask yourself the following: 

i) Does the package or service help to create a healthier organisation as a whole? — for instance, by focusing on establishing a healthy and psychologically safe workplace culture? On offering training in interpersonal skills and conflict resolution? Or giving employees the chance to optimise their performance? Or is it just designed to help people get back on track when their mental health has been affected? Does it only offer one-to-one support for individuals? Is it solely focused on fixing problems, rather than prevention?

ii) Does it normalise the idea of everyone attending to their mental health — or does it primarily focus on mental health conditions like anxiety or depression? If it’s the latter, then the plan’s impact and reach may be limited.

iii) Does it fit with your organisation’s values and mission around mental health or does it simply offer a one-size-fits-all approach? — for instance, is your organisation vocal about mental health being an ongoing journey? Do you believe that mental fitness needs to be maintained and strengthened in the same way as physical fitness? If so, then by only offering employees short-term courses of counselling (rather than training in preventative skills like resilience as well as deeper support for more complex issues), your health plan might actually clash with your values.

iv) Is it integrated with the rest of your organisation’s needs? — this is important, as mental health initiatives tend to be more helpful when they’re embedded into your entire workplace culture rather than being standalone. In other words, does this package or plan include staff training, as well as guidance for awareness initiatives and cultural shifts?

v) Is it responsive to your organisation’s needs right now — what support does your business need, specifically? What particular industry-based stressors are your team facing? What interpersonal tensions are taking place? Is your business going through a particular set of circumstances right now, for instance, a change of premises or structural shift? If so, could employees benefit from change management training?

vi) Does it support pivotal members of your team? — for instance, mental health first aiders and wellbeing champions? Those who are leading and managing others? Or anyone responsible for modelling good mental health practices and self-care?

4. Does it meet contemporary needs and expectations?

When it comes to mental health support, people’s needs are changing. They often want flexibility of location, a technologically streamlined experience and appointments that fit around their schedule. Online and text therapy are also increasing in popularity, with individuals often preferring to seek support from the comfort of their home or even on the go. So ask yourself the following: 

i) Is the package or plan up-to-date — for instance, if you are a cutting-edge, tech-first company then is the mental health offering in line with his? Can people book and attend appointments online or even by text message? Can they track their progress and access resources via one single, streamlined online portal?

ii) Is it accessible? — is there an easy-to-use app offered alongside it? Does it require employees to jump through too many hoops, for instance, finding a phone number, calling up, having an assessment with one person, then seeing someone else?

iii) Is it easy to make visible and promote? — for instance, is there an online portal that can be accessed from the business communication tools being used, such as Slack or MS Teams? Can it be incorporated into your staff intranet? 

iv) Is it all-encompassing? — does it meet all of your business needs, including the needs of people in different roles, from c-suite to entry level? Does it meet the needs of hybrid and homeworkers? Are part-time workers included in the plan?

5. Is it trackable, measurable and insightful?

If you are going to invest in an employee mental health benefits plan, then it’s important to choose one that is also a good information gathering tool. This way, you can make the best decisions for your organisation going forward. So ask yourself the following:

i) Does it offer actionable insights? — such as anonymised data on the mental health of your organisation, including highlighting key areas that need attention?

ii) Can you track its success? -— can you follow how many people are accessing it? Can they offer feedback on how they feel about it? It’s important to note that low-usage doesn’t indicate low need, as research shows that demand for mental health support is high. For instance, according to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, roughly one in seven people (14%) experience mental health problems in the workplace. Additionally, evidence suggests that over 12% of sickness absences in the UK are due to mental health. 

So if people aren’t using a particular solution then it might be because it isn’t meeting their needs, rather than because there isn’t a demand for it. For instance, they might feel that the support is too superficial or difficult to access. That’s why tracking people’s thoughts and feelings about a plan is so important.

6. Is it good for business and ROI?

Is there a clear business case for adopting a particular package or provider? — so is it good value when you consider the impact and costs of presenteeism (reduced productivity in employees), absenteeism, churn and so forth? For instance, the Centre for Mental Health has calculated that the issue of presenteeism costs the UK economy around £15.1 billion per year — almost twice the cost of absenteeism.

It’s true that there is a lot to consider when choosing an employee mental health benefits plan for your organisation. But hopefully the above guide will help you to make the best decision, so that you can build a healthy, supportive and psychologically safe working environment for all.

Employee Mental Health Benefits — How to Choose the Right Plan
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