Employees still getting inadequate mental health care

A recent survey of human resources executives in the US found mental health is still not a priority for many employers.

While close to a third of respondents said mental illness affects their business more than any other health issue, it seems many employers still do not take measures to ensure their staff are aware of options or are supported when dealing with mental illness.

According to research, it is estimated that approximately eight percent of full time employees live with a serious mental illness. Still, two thirds of human resources survey respondents said their companies do not provide managers with mental health education.

Less than 15 percent said their managers are trained in recognizing a mental health problem or directing an employee to seek treatment.

A full three quarters believe employees do not seek treatment because they are unaware of available treatments or don’t believe treatment will help them.

Shame and stigma were cited by 80 percent as major reasons employees said they avoid seeking treatment for mental illness and many said employees fear their employer or coworkers would find out if they sought treatment.

In this survey only 12 percent said their companies encourage mental health screening – while 70 percent actively encourage mammograms and blood pressure monitoring and half encourage weight management.

Stress is a known major contributor to mental health problems and less than 40 percent of companies represented in the US survey reported regularly monitoring employee morale, satisfaction and stress.

While 90 percent said their companies provided some mental health benefits, only one third thought the benefits were equivalent to medical benefits.

Although these numbers represent American companies, in my experience the situation is very similar in Canada. Many employers still actively undermine the return to employment of staff with mental illness and treat mentally ill employees in a discriminatory manner.

Insurance companies often compound the issue by using what appear to be delaying tactics that put the employee in a situation of financial duress. Apparently, the insurers hope many will give up before receiving the benefits to which they are entitled.

Sometimes the insurer doesn’t pay or send forms when promised, doesn’t return phone calls, requests more information from doctors in an indirect or inefficient way or refuses to pay a claim thus forcing an appeal. All of these instances happen frequently if not routinely even in the most obvious and deserving cases.

Financial stress during delays often becomes a problem. Insurers make things difficult by requiring the employee to pay for each required assessment out of their own pocket while they are also not receiving benefits. Many times, individuals run out of money and cannot afford to take the necessary steps to qualify for their benefits.

I see people who end up going to the food bank or having to sell their homes before they get their disability payments. In the worst cases they have to hire lawyers to represent them, which of course is very expensive and many are understandably reluctant to risk more money when they are unsure of the outcome.

Sometimes just the worry about facing these kinds of circumstances prevents employees from taking time away from work when they are experiencing a mental illness. A Canadian survey found almost 40 percent of employees who continued working when they experienced health problems due to stress, anxiety or depression did so for financial reasons.

If employees don’t take the time they need or are not adequately treated and supported in the work place, it costs employers money in lost productivity and increased sick days.

In ideal situations employers dealing with staff returning from a disability leave due to mental illness will allow a graduated return to work negotiated with the employee and his or her doctor. Employers should also be supportive upon the staff member’s return to work and try as much as possible to accommodate the specific needs of that individual.

Insurers should answer calls promptly, give clear guidelines about payment schedules and adequate notice and reasoning before stopping payments. Ideally, and some companies do this – the insurer should also pay for any necessary assessments. Claims should be processed quickly with clear and efficient communication.

All of this represents more evidence of the continuing stigma and discrimination faced by people living with mental illness.


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