(This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer)
Getting help for your mental health no longer carries a stigma. And small employers are taking notice.
In a recent survey from benefits firm Lyra Health, 84% of respondents from more than 1,000 employees and employers across the U.S. said that mental health benefits were important to them. More significant is that 92% of employers said that providing mental health support became a much higher priority in 2021, with even more saying they expected it to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
Younger employees — Millennials and GenX-ers — who make up the bulk of today’s workforce do not consider mental health issues to be taboo. Many have suffered through depression, anxiety, and apprehension because of the pandemic with many others still hesitant to return to work amidlingering health concerns. Thanks to athletes such as Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and Ben Simmons, the discussion of mental health issues has become more commonplace than ever before.
“People are more motivated when their basic needs are met,” said Sam Farmer, an executive at Northern Liberties’ Roundtrip, which facilitates medical transportation services for healthcare providers and patients. “Which is why it’s really important now more than ever for employers to prioritize employees wellbeing and mental health.”
Bob Allison, a partner at Lakewood, N.J.-based accounting firm Holman Frenia Allison, agrees. “We’re painfully aware of the impact that COVID has had on our employees well-being which is why our firm’s mental health benefits are so important,” he said. “We’ve learned that when our employees are feeling good about themselves, they do a better job.”
Allison, Farmer, and other managers and owners at small businesses have realized that in order to attract and retain great employees in 2022, their companies have to provide good mental health benefits. Generally, these benefits fall into three main categories.
The first is coverage. Businesses need to check with their health insurance companies to confirm what coverage is available for their employees who may have mental health issues and to make sure their employees are aware of these benefits. Many plans cover counseling services and medications. Larger insurance companies, recognizing the growing demand, are also stepping up their offerings. But having this coverage is only the beginning. As important is that your employees know about the benefits available to them.
To do this, Farmer helped compile a “mental health resource page” for her company that includes all the company’s benefits and even contains her personal “approach to finding a therapist” entry with commentaries on what worked and didn’t work for her.
“We also try to make it really clear though that it’s not one size fits all,” she said. “There was a perception that a mental health issue only happens when there’s some extreme, observable ailments that people might have, but I think people now recognize that mental health is a spectrum and everybody kind of lands somewhere on that spectrum in some capacity.”
Anna Ehlenberger’s company — consulting firm Converge HR Solutions in Berwyn — holds a quarterly speaker series that focuses on well-being in the workplace and makes a concerted effort to spread awareness of her company’s benefits to all employees.
“Employee well-being has expanded to a holistic approach of physical, emotional, financial, social community purpose,” she said. “It was critical for us to develop better workplace resilience and increase our employee engagement.”
The second category of mental health benefits is services. Some companies are increasingly signing up with such platforms as BetterUp, Fringe, Talkspace and Lyra which, offer subscribers mental health support from trained and certified professionals that can provide counseling confidentially and on their schedule. Others have hired freelance psychologists and coaches to be on call for any employees that feel they need extra help.
Finally, many are revisiting their company’s culture. Today’s best employers recognize the need for flexible schedules, work-from-home options, and other independent working that provides employees with the ability to determine where and when they do their jobs. Those same employers offer a more easygoing office environment and offers breaks, social events, and other activities to counter the stresses they occur at their jobs.
Allison’s firm has an internal “fun club” made up of employees who schedule regular, quarterly events ranging from “employee fun days” to an annual “employee appreciation day” which brings together their offices and allows their employees to blow off steam. “We also have happy hours and outings where employees can build team comradery,” he said.
Farmer’s company does “feel good Fridays” where offices are closed and employees are allowed to unplug by doing anything they want from playing golf to walking their dogs.
“We started this during the pandemic because we realized that too many of our people were suffering from FOMO and were afraid that if they stepped away, they’d be excluded from something important.” The company also has flexible scheduling and an unlimited paid time off policy that requires employees to take a minimum 10 days off a year to avoid burnout. “This is not negotiable,” she said.
The pandemic has blurred the lines between work and life and for many it’s also created new anxieties, which is why it’s critical now for small business owners to prioritize their employees’ wellbeing, particularly in these times of tight labor.
“Employee wellbeing is a priority benefit now,” said Ehlenberger. “And that’s not going to change anytime soon.”