Opinion | Think Your EAP Can Stand Up to the Current Mental Health Crisis? This Workers’ Comp Expert Says Think Again

By: | December 16, 2021

Michelle Kerr is Workers' Compensation Editor and National Conference Chair for Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

There’s no question that mental and behavioral health and substance abuse have been hot-button issues through a large part of 2020 and 2021. Stress and burnout are now common parts of the workers’ comp conversation.

But hot-button issues tend to fade and lose momentum. Will we still be talking about behavioral health in 2022? 2023? I think we will. It’s not yet time to let this conversation drift out of the spotlight.

Why? Because we probably haven’t seen the worst of it yet, not just in the hardest-hit employee populations, but throughout the workforce.

“The threat is far from over,” Rich Jones tells me. Jones, LCAS, SAP, is executive director and EVP of Heritage CARES. Jones has more than 20 years in the behavioral health space, including mental health and substance use disorders.

Just as the workers’ comp community has learned from helping employees with PTSD, he explained, you can’t really find a path through the trauma until the trauma ends.

“This is going to get exponentially worse,” he told me, through 2022 and 2023, once the pandemic battle finally draws to a close. (Let’s hope.) That gave me pause. Are we prepared for it to get worse? Probably not.

Despite the elevated level of conversation around mental health and substance use, a great many employers are still opting for the most traditional approach, utilizing an EAP model.

I’m not knocking EAPs. They have a lot to offer. But they don’t address the entire employee behavioral health picture.

“We were all trained based on a willing client who looks for help,” said Jones. But not all employees who need help will seek it, and that leaves a broad gap for employees to fall though.

Absenteeism, changes in behavior or mood, lack of focus or decreased productivity – these can be signs that an employee is in distress. Employers can, and some do, train their supervisors to spot these signs. But it’s still not enough.

“Most of us can hide this,” Jones said. This is where the willing client model breaks down. A great many employees will show no outward signs until the problem is deeply entrenched, or real consequences emerge. An employee could be heavily struggling, but “their employer doesn’t even realize they’re not getting the employee’s A-game,” Jones continued.

We all know this is true. You’ve seen it in your colleagues, your friends, maybe even yourself at times. So why do so many of us resist asking for help?

Maybe the stigma of discussing such things openly is still too deeply ingrained. Maybe we were raised to tough it out, or that it will make us look weak. Maybe we think no one else is going through the same thing. Maybe we don’t really trust that it won’t negatively impact our jobs.

Breaking through these perceptions won’t be an easy lift. But it can start with education. Not just education for those that reach out and seek it, education for everyone in our organizations.

If we can’t be certain when employees are really well, “we have to assume they are not doing well,” said Jones. What a mind shift that is, and a strong point to consider as companies continue to develop their behavioral health programs.

In fact, Jones goes so far as to advocate adding mental health and substance abuse to the mandatory training employers require. Stop and think about that — about the instant culture shift that creates. The message it conveys is “We feel this is so important to the success of our company that we’re investing it, we want to ensure every employee gets this information.”

It’s a powerful way to change the conversation. And it has the potential to cut through resistance. Clients Jones works with have seen a significant shift in outcomes and positive responses from employees.

To be prepared for what’s next, employers are going to need a proactive approach — a way to access what’s hidden and break down obstacles.

For what lies ahead, said Jones, “We’d better be prepared, and we’re going to have to be prepared in a different way.” &

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