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ATLANTA — Early intervention for employees suffering from mental health issues can reduce worker disability durations and costs by preventing illnesses from advancing to more serious conditions, experts say.
That may require employers to integrate a mental health early intervention program into their disability management programs. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness about the need to address employee absenteeism and employer disability costs through mental health efforts, and an increasing number of practical solutions for treating mental illness.
For instance, patient self-rating questionnaires can collect information beyond what's normally gathered by an attending physician to help learn whether a psychiatrist is needed to provide appropriate treatment.
Such measures used early can help employees return to work, or even remain at work while receiving treatment before a problem evolves into a long-term disability claim, said Christopher Anderson, president of Medaca Health Group in Toronto. In addition to lowering the incidence of long-term disability claims, they can lower the duration of short-term disability claims, he said.
Mr. Anderson spoke during the Disability Management Employer Coalition's 18th annual conference, held Aug. 18-21 in Atlanta.
Although such measures require resources, they also reduce costs, experts at the conference said.
“If you get people better, you will actually reduce costs and not increase them,” Mr. Anderson said.
Unfortunately, while employers could improve worker productivity and reduce disability claims durations and costs by boosting mental health programs, stigma associated with obtaining help for mental illness remains an obstacle to receiving treatment.
To help counter that stigma, employers can structure their health and welfare programs to recognize and address mental illness in the same way they treat physical ailments such as heart or liver disease, the speakers said.
Also, employers can train supervisors to help lead employees to their company's mental health benefits offerings.
“Employers need to play a more active role in this, not only by providing services to help individuals in the workplace who are suffering from mental illness, but by training supervisors who deal one on one with employees on a regular basis to better serve them and get them to the help they need,” said Dr. Barton Margoshes, medical consultant for Chicago-based Pacific Resources Benefits Advisors L.L.C.
Substantial progress in understanding the brain and helping even those with serious mental illness contribute to society has occurred during the past two decades, said Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady and keynote speaker for the event.
Yet stigma remains the biggest obstacle for helping people with mental illness, and it causes discrimination in areas such health care, housing and insurance, Ms. Carter said.
The stigma will always exist, but more employers are learning that providing employees help for mental health issues reduces days away from work due to disabilities, Mr. Anderson said.
“For the first time, we are seeing recognition that mental health in the workplace is not simply a human resource practice,” Mr. Anderson said. “Today, mental health is a business imperative.”
Early intervention to get employees mental health assistance is increasingly important in today's work environment, where 85% of jobs demand mental attention rather than physical labor, he said.
“Mental mistakes, or mistakes by overworked and stressed employees, increasingly drive business failure,” Mr. Anderson said. “Healthy, mentally fit employees are required to meet business goals, especially in a world that is more stress-filled than ever.”
Reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues won't occur soon, said Marcia Carruthers, board chairman for San Diego-based DMEC. But Ms. Carruthers urged DMEC members to talk about mental health and educate their colleagues about the importance of appropriately addressing mental illness.
“Those of you in the audience need to educate your workforce, your managers, your employees, your unions,” Ms. Carruthers said. “You could make a difference.”
About 600 people attended the DMEC conference. Next year's event will be held in Las Vegas in August.