Improving awareness

Businesses are offering more robust employee assistance programs, but some workers remain reluctant to use the services

Anthony Vecchione//January 20, 2020//

Improving awareness

Businesses are offering more robust employee assistance programs, but some workers remain reluctant to use the services

Anthony Vecchione//January 20, 2020//

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Employers can face significant economic harm if they do not adequately address the mental health issues of their employees. So it’s not surprising that New Jersey companies are increasingly paying closer attention to those needs. But while the stigma of mental health problems has abated, it still can present roadblocks.


Albert Bassetti, director EAP/Emergency Services at Hunterdon HealthCare in Flemington, provides a wide variety of employee assistance program services to hospital staff and area companies in surrounding counties.

Bassetti said he has seen a greater awareness as mental health becomes less stigmatized.

“It is a win–win for employees and the company. It’s a value added for employers. Using EAPs reduces health care utilization and employees get confidential services such as counseling directly to them and their families.”

Ann Marie Zihal, senior vice president clinical services at Care Plus NJ, said she agrees that local companies are paying more attention to their employee’s mental health concerns.

“When the economy is strong, then employers are able to offer this service and they look out for it. Investing in staff is a cost-effective investment,” said Zihal.

Care Plus offers an employee assistance program that includes primary and behavioral health services.

“There is still a stigma attached to somebody who has mental illness which is unfortunate because by having the right support in place you can have a very robust, productive and stable workforce, if employers invest in their employees.”

A 2015 survey conducted by Mercer Human Resources Consulting revealed that nearly two-thirds of respondents found access to outpatient behavioral health care is lacking in some or all of their locations.
However, employers are using EAPs to help improve the situation in increasing numbers. Nearly half, 48 percent, said they have enhanced the services offered through EAPs just within the last two years or changed EAP vendors to provide more robust services.

“Those cost savings would be realized in health care costs and in employee’s productivity,” said Debra Wentz, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies.

Debra Wentz, president and chief executive officer, New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies.

“Costs associated with lost productivity can be cut in half when employers offer and promote mental health care. Offering mental health treatment helps to reduce the risk of substance use, which is critical, considering the rate of opioid and other substance use continues to increase.”

Wentz said that when businesses allocate resources to address mental health issues, employees are more likely to show up for work every day, be more productive and remain loyal to employers who show concern and invest in them.

Work stress and job burnout, noted Wentz, are now classified as medical occupational syndromes that cost employers tens of millions of dollars in lost productivity, disability and workers compensation claims.

As of 2017, more than nine out of 10 organizations offered at least one kind of wellness benefit and more than three out of five have wellness budgets, according to a survey by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

From 2016 to 2017 nearly one-quarter of companies offered increased offerings.

“That demonstrates an increasing focus on holistic well-being,” said Wentz.

By the numbers

Untreated mental illnesses can cost as much as $60,000 annually for a single organization and a $105 billion each year nationwide, according to the Center for Prevention in Health Services.

The World Health Organization estimated that 264 million people suffer from depression and anxiety disorders costing the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.

Depression alone cost the U.S. an estimated $210 billion a year and more than 60 percent of this cost is for treating medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease – common for people with mental health disorders, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Mental health disorders, especially when they are not treated, can significantly increase the risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

According to an August 2019 report from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), 91 percent of their members stated that their organizations offered EAPs compared to only 79 percent in 2015.

The Employers Association of New Jersey reported that although human resource managers are aware of the negative impact mental illnesses can have on businesses, only 15 percent believe that managers are trained to recognize when co-workers are struggling, provide support and recommend resources.

Efficacy questions

The effectiveness of EAPs can vary based on their funding quality, and how they are used, Wentz said. Funding for programs is often inadequate – and few employees use them – due to stigma or lack of awareness. And, in some cases, appointments are not quickly available.

Ann Marie Zihal, senior vice president clinical services, Care Plus NJ.

“There are many facilities that have wait times that exceed several weeks; we typically get you in the same day, we schedule appointments within 24-hours, and we offer person-centered treatment,” Zihal said.

The Employers Association found that nearly half of workers with mental illness do not share this info with their employers – due to fear of discrimination and rejection or being passed over for promotions. Misunderstanding, judgmental attitudes, bullying and social avoidance by co-workers are also deterrents.

However, attitudes are changing and the average person is more forthcoming. In other words, said Wentz, mental health issues have become more normalized and are part of the mainstream.

Nevertheless, a stigma sometimes remains.

“We have not fully gotten past the stigma – we have made progress but we are not there yet in terms of stigma when you talk about fighting mental health and addiction problems in the workplace.”

Wentz said she is hopeful that the new year and beyond will bring improvements in mental health services for employees because of the increasing awareness about mental health disorders and conversations about mental health that educate and help to eliminate stigma.

“People are no longer fearful as a result and more people recognize the value of mental health care and are comfortable asking for help when they need it.”