COVID-19 response: Supporting employees’ mental well-being

Employers are in uncharted territory as COVID-19 has created heightened levels of stress and uncertainty among employees and their families. Even before the pandemic, about 1 in 5 American adults lived with a mental health illness and less than half received treatment.1

Now, due to COVID-19, Harvard Business Review research found:

  • 75% of people say they feel more socially isolated.
  • 67% have higher levels of stress.
  • 57% feel increased anxiety.
  • 53% are more emotionally exhausted.2

“It’s important for employers to recognize that a high percentage of their workforce is probably impacted in some way or another,” says Dr. Martin H. Rosenzweig, Chief Medical Officer, Optum Behavioral. “The psychological effects are broad-ranging and long-lasting — it’s estimated we’re going to be impacted by this, for up to 2 years.”

3 Key Takeaways

  1. Employees returning to their worksites may not only have concerns about their safety, but they may face challenges such as caring for an aging parent, childcare challenges, and possible uncertainty about their financial future.
  2. When employers communicate to employees about behavioral health benefits, it’s important to present information in a way that may reduce the stigma of mental illness.
  3. Offering the option of virtual appointments may increase access to behavioral health services — one of the fastest-growing uses of telehealth even before the pandemic.

As a result, employers might help address the behavioral health needs of employees and their families now and into the future by: 

  • Identifying employees who may need mental health services.
  • Reducing the mental health stigma among their employee population.
  • Offering virtual care for behavioral health services.

Help support employees’ mental health through data-driven insights

A 2019 report by the World Health Organization found depression and anxiety have an estimated cost to the global economy of $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.3 COVID-19 may have magnified these challenges for employers and employees. Employees returning to their worksites may not only have concerns about their safety, but they may face challenges such as caring for an aging parent, childcare challenges and possible uncertainty about their financial future.

“The challenge for employers may be trying to get back to a state of normal productivity, and at the same time be compassionate and understanding about the impact this may be having on their employees,” Rosenzweig says.

Through data-driven solutions, UnitedHealthcare can work with employers to help identify care gaps and help support employees through COVID-19’s effects. For example, claims algorithms can track individuals who have not filled their prescriptions for anti-depressant medications. A targeted outreach campaign for them or their providers may then identify barriers and offer effective solutions such as pharmacy delivery or mail-order prescriptions.

Likewise, if a member has accessed self-help content on their member website, data can enable follow-up communication if desired. Employers also may be able to monitor their group’s claims utilization that could better meet their employees’ needs and prevent a higher, more costly level of care.

For example, continuation of care may be important for an employee seeing a psychiatrist to prevent potential emergency room care or inpatient care. “Usually, there has been a gap in psychiatry visits when we see higher levels of care,” says Stacie Grassmuck, Director of Behavioral Health Product and Innovation at UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual.

Employers also may have access to a range of solutions across the care continuum to support their employees’ mental well-being, including 24/7 access to an emotional support line staffed by trained mental health professionals, as well as access to SanvelloTM, an on-demand emotional support mobile app, at no additional cost.

“This is a time where employers can focus as much attention on behavioral health conditions as they have historically for chronic conditions such as diabetes and cancer,” Grassmuck says.

Helping to reduce stigma among employee populations

Then employers communicate behavioral health benefits, programs and tools available to them and their families, it’s important to present it in a way that may reduce the stigma of mental illness. Stigma is one of the most common barriers to treatment. Eight of 10 workers with a mental health condition report that shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment.4

One way employers may help reduce stigma is raising awareness and avoiding language that could potentially hurt or inadvertently discourage someone from seeking mental health treatment.5 Stigma-free ways to talk about mental health include:6

  • Not using words that may reinforce stereotypes and minimize the importance of understanding mental health conditions, i.e., crazy, head case, lunatic. Instead, be specific and sympathetic.
  • Not using a mental health condition to define the person. For example, use “someone who lives with a mental health condition” or “someone who is affected by a mental health condition.” Do not use “someone who suffers from a mental health condition.”
  • Not using the disease to describe the person. Instead, use a person-first approach. For example, use “a person living with schizophrenia” or “someone diagnosed with schizophrenia.” Don’t use “a schizophrenic person.”

“People won’t always come forward and ask for help, so if employers can reinforce the message, ‘This is part of your benefit, it’s OK to get help and this is like any other medical condition,’ I think there’s an opportunity there,” Rosenzweig says. “Behavioral health matters. It’s treatable and there should be no shame.”

Virtual care may increase access to behavioral health services

Offering the option of virtual appointments may increase access to behavioral health services — one of the fastest-growing uses of telehealth even before the pandemic. UnitedHealthcare offers behavioral health virtual care from a network of 10,000 behavioral health providers, which includes intensive outpatient programs (IOPs).

“Social distancing measures have further pushed providers and members hesitant to adopt the technology to try it. We will likely continue to see a rise in behavioral health needs and we hope receiving care virtually will be part of the new norm,” Grassmuck says.

Talkspace, a part of Optum Behavioral Health’s telehealth network, reported web traffic doubled from March through May 2020 when many states implemented shelter-in-place orders.7

“The ability to have appointments in the privacy of your home may help with the stigma. I recommend telehealth to employers because it opens it up to employees who usually would not seek care,” Grassmuck says. “It will be important for employers to be proactive in reaching out to employees to reduce the stigma of seeking care for their mental health needs.”

Mental health professionals were provided free access to Sanvello Clinician Dashboard, a HIPAA-compliant platform that includes secure video therapy functionality, text-based messaging and scheduling. Sanvello Health is a UnitedHealth Group company.

“Almost our entire outpatient behavioral network has now been enabled around provision of virtual care,” Rosenzweig says. “We have really tried to be flexible and receptive to some of these innovative ways of maintaining patient contact and treatment integrity.”

For more information, reach out to your consultant, broker or UnitedHealthcare representative

More information on behavioral health support:

  • UnitedHealthcare offers the following behavioral health support:
  • A 24/7 emotional support line from UnitedHealth Group, staffed by trained mental health professionals, for anyone at 1-866-342-6892.
  • Self-help apps that use clinically validated techniques to address stress, anxiety and depression. UnitedHealth Group has made premium access to Sanvello at no additional cost, an on-demand emotional support mobile app during this time.  
  • A Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Helpline available 24/7 to connect with an advocate who can help arrange a face-to-face clinical evaluation typically within 24 hours.
  • An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers employees and their families access to a master’s-level clinician and 1-to-1 counseling for emotional well-being and substance use support.
  • EAP WorkLife services, which offers a broad range of support, including assistance for finding child and elder care, parenting solutions, specialty care such as Autism/Applied Behavior (ABA) providers, chronic condition support, and concierge services to help with legal and financial counseling.
  • Access to an assistance line for employees with financial challenges.
  • Proactive outreach for employees with behavioral health conditions.
  • Assistance with adherence to medications related to behavioral health conditions.


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