The Future of Benefits: Leading Employers Embrace Mental Health as a Priority

Male employee working on his computer

Next time you’re in a meeting, look around. 

Experts say 1-in-5 adults are grappling with depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue. 

That’s a big number for something no one ever talks about. 

But maybe (finally) that’s about to change. 

Increasingly the business world is recognizing that employees should feel as free (and un-stigmatized) about taking time for their mental health as they would for the flu. In 2017, one boss went viral for lauding an employees’ candid message announcing a day off for mental health. “I just want to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health. I can’t believe this isn’t standard practice at all organizations.”  

More recently, two executives writing for Harvard Business Review put faces to mental health – their own. “Throughout both of our careers,” they wrote, “we have moved across the spectrum of mental health from thriving to barely hanging on, and somewhere in between. 

“What we’ve learned through our own experiences is how much managerial support matters.

The wave was unmistakably clear at our recent San Francisco conference of benefits leaders, where The Future of Benefits (the name of one particularly well received session) included a mindful and deliberate focus on mental health. “No one will think twice before going to a doctor,” said one client. “How can you get people to not think twice about going to a therapist? It’s just as important.”

Bringing Mental Health Out of the Shadows

What are these employers doing?

Bringing services to employees: Employees often have a hard time finding support. So one entertainment company is bringing support to employees – drop-in counselors available onsite. People “don’t even want to admit they have an issue,” our client told us, “And when they finally do, it’s really hard to get a good caretaker. We’re trying to make that easier.”

Removing stigmas: People who tell their stories free other people to be open as well. That’s the philosophy behind one employer’s program encouraging employees to share experiences with depression, anxiety, challenges, and how they got help. “That makes people feel less alone,” said our client “and willing to get help.”

Evaluating support: Providing resources is just one step; delivering them is another. “We’re looking at our health plans and our disability programs for any barriers to accessing care,” said one client. “Are we treating mental health like any other medical condition or disability? If we’re not, then we need to change that.”

Expanding what’s seen as support: Resources don’t stop at therapy. “I get a lot of requests for mindfulness, meditation,” said one client “So we are making that more mainstream.” 

Programs continue to evolve. But what’s clear is that mental health is no longer in the shadows. “When bosses understand mental health issues — and how to respond to them — it can make all the difference for an employee professionally and personally,” wrote the HBR writers. “This involves taking notice, offering a helping hand, and saying “I’m here, I have your back, you are not alone.” With one-in-five people affected -- that all by itself is a big step.

Written by: Ellen Oliver

May 15, 2019

About the Author

Ellen Oliver at Bright Horizons

As Director of B2B Marketing Programs, Ellen writes about talent management, employee engagement, and work/life balance trends. Ellen brings a wide perspective of human resource topics gained through working with industries from large engineering and construction firms, to government and academic organizations and nonprofits.