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Employers are unlikely to succeed in reducing the prevalence of depression and other mental disorders in the workplace without changing employee attitudes on the conditions themselves and the available treatments, experts say.
“With depression and mental illness, it's a little more challenging to get at because there is some stigma attached with some of those conditions,” said Mark McLeod, university benefits manager at Kent State University.
The university — based in Kent, Ohio, with eight campuses in the northeastern part of the state — incurs about $2 million a year in depression-related medical and pharmacy benefits costs, or roughly 4% of its total health care costs, Mr. McLeod said.
Research shows “that the indirect costs related to productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism could be as much as four times what we're facing in direct costs,” he said.
To improve employees' understanding of depressive illnesses and the treatment, counseling and other mental health benefits that are available, the university and its employee assistance program provider — Cleveland-based behavioral health consultant Impact Solutions Inc. — partnered with Right Direction, a free depression resource portal the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and Employers Health Coalition Inc. rolled out in 2013.
The program “not only increases employees' awareness and helps them utilize some of the tools that are available through Right Direction, but also creates some form of treatment linkage for people who feel that they may need professional counseling,” Mr. McLeod said.
Set against the backdrop of an evergreen forest to underscore the idea that depression can feel quite like being “lost in the woods,” the Right Direction portal includes an interactive map, downloadable quiz and perspective comparison chart designed to help managers and employees identify symptoms of depression. For employers, the portal also features a library of free educational and promotional materials, as well as links to external depression management resources.
Though it is too early to know the program's result, Mr. McLeod said the university will be glad to exchange a short-term bump in medical and pharmaceutical utilization rates due to depression if it reduces long-term costs.
“As employees become more aware and more open to the idea of getting treatment, we know that the utilization might go up in the near term,” Mr. McLeod said. “What we're really trying to do is reduce the long-term costs and effects associated with those conditions.”