How employers are handling the mental health challenges of employees in the wake of COVID-19

The public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic may have saved millions from dying of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. But, according to researchers, the lockdowns, social distancing, and masking also had a significant impact on people’s mental health.

COVID-19 was particularly hard on young adults and on “essential workers” – employees who couldn’t self-isolate during the pandemic.

According to data reviewed by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), the number of adults ages 18-24 reporting symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder skyrocketed by more than 500%, from 11% in mid-2019 to 56% in January 2021. Young adults were also twice as likely to report substance abuse than older adults – 25% versus 13% in older adults. Young adults also reported more than twice as much suicidal ideation – 26% compared to 11%.

KFF also reported that essential workers were more likely than workers not classified as such to admit to suicidal thoughts (22% for essential workers vs. 8% non-essential), anxiety or depressive disorder (42% to 30%), and substance abuse (25% to 11%).

While the pandemic’s consequences have been stark for these groups, its mental health impact has been much more widespread. Research by employee benefits provider The Standard indicates that the share of workers reporting mental health issues rose by 18%, from 39% of employees in 2019 to 46% in 2020. And 55% of employees who already struggled with mental health concerns said their issue had affected their work performance more since the beginning of the pandemic.

Employers are motivated to help their employees deal with mental health challenges. Aside from caring about employees on a personal level, company leaders understand that poor mental health has an impact on job performance. And it is well established that mental concerns such as anxiety or depression can increase the costs of treating chronic disease – one meta-analysis showed cost increases of 150% to 450%.

One way to proactively manage the evolving behavioral health needs of accounts and employees is with a healthcare analytics and reporting solution that can: a) retrospectively track trends in cost and utilization of behavioral health services; and b) help to prospectively identify benefit design options with an account’s unique healthcare needs in mind. Whyzen® Analytics from BHI addresses both needs. It can drill down to behavioral health claims at the account level – establishing baselines for cost and utilization – as well as aid in the identification of benefit design recommendations that are customized for any account.

Depression drug costs by type

In this Whyzen Analytics table, users are able to stay on top of trends and current levels of pharmacy usage and cost for specific behavioral health diagnoses. Because of Whyzen Analytics’ robust data inquiry capabilities, users can quickly identify the drivers of trend by drug class and drug type. While this chart confirms what we already know – that generics are less expensive than single-source and multi-source brands – it quickly provides additional insight into how much less expensive they are and the comparative direction and magnitude of those trends. And further analysis shows that, while single-source brands have an upward impact on trend, the primary driver by far is the multi-source brands.

Beginning in 2020, a major employer worked with their benefits broker to use this capability to manage and optimize the behavioral health offerings for its members. In its first year, they applied this functionality to quickly identify and analyze trends in behavioral health claims. Going forward, they will use this information to create more informed benefit design – aligning copays with member needs, steering members to in-network providers, and establishing forecasting that better aligns with actual healthcare spend.