August 21, 2020

The Employer Mental Health Opportunity

By Accolade

  • Four out of 10 US adults struggling with mental health or substance abuse. 1
  • Working parents reaching their breaking point as child-care costs rise.
  • 75,000 additional deaths from drug or alcohol abuse and suicide projected as a result of the pandemic. 2

As COVID-19 continues to threaten our physical health, disrupt routines, and isolate us from one another, there’s no question our emotional and mental well-being is suffering.

But our country’s mental health crisis isn’t new; it’s just getting worse. Even before the pandemic, we faced growing despair along with a shortage of mental health resources to help. Half of all U.S. counties lacked a psychiatrist in 2016, and only 10 percent of those with an identified substance-abuse problem received care, for example. 3 Today, the average wait time for the first mental health appointment is 25 days, and the shortage of therapists and psychiatrists is projected to reach 250,000 by 2025. 4

But there is a silver lining. While the pandemic is increasing anxiety, depression and other challenges, it’s also elevating mental health into the national focus on health. Never before has the country been more collectively focused on physical and mental health, and that opens the door for employers to take steps to help their people get the support they need.

Here are 4 ideas for making a positive impact on the mental health of their employees:

  1. Help destigmatize mental health. Eight of every 10 people surveyed by Kaiser Permanente say that shame and stigma prevent them from seeking mental health care, 5 but the COVID-19 crisis has helped make talking about mental health more widely accepted. One of the best ways employers can destigmatize and normalize mental health is to talk about it. People managers and company leaders can serve as role models for prioritizing emotional well-being and talking about the importance of work-life balance or taking a mental health day. And to facilitate employee dialogue and storytelling, you can help form employee resource groups (ERGs) focused on the topic of mental health.
  2. Embrace the move to digital solutions for behavioral health. The need for social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 has led to a surge in virtual healthcare, with many patients now having had their first telehealth visit. The improved accessibility and convenience offered by virtual care is critical for people with behavioral health needs, many of whom can’t afford to wait weeks or even days to get support. Digital behavioral healthcare also is of great interest to people, with nearly 75% saying they would be more likely to use a BH benefit if it was accessible from their mobile device, and nearly 50% preferring the convenience of online chat, phone or video over in-person behavioral healthcare. 6
  3. Break down the walls between physical and mental healthcare. Mental health is traditionally its own island, treated independently from physical health. But when mental health is part of primary care delivery, individuals are twice as likely to improve depression, decrease physical pain, and better their quality of life. Employers can look for collaborative care solutions that knock down these silos and put the individual at the center, providing care for the whole person. New models of care create extended care teams including nurses, primary care doctors, mental health coaches, therapists and psychiatrists who work together to meet patient needs.
  4. Prioritize behavioral health population outcomes. Most traditional behavioral health approaches are focused on utilization and cost rather than positive health outcomes. But employers need solutions that go beyond tracking usage or engagement, neither of which indicate successful treatment or improved emotional well-being or mental health. One option is using validated screening tools (such as Patient Health Questionnaires-2 and -9, and General Anxiety Disorder-7) repeatedly to track health outcomes.

Interested in learning more? Accolade recently hosted a webinar called “Improving Employee Well-being and Mental Health in the time of Covid-19.” Hosted by Accolade Chief Medical Officer Shantanu Nundy, MD and Benjamin F. Miller, chief strategy officer for the Well Being Trust, the webinar gives recommendations and examples of how employers can accelerate change in mental health and help people live their healthiest lives. Read the executive summary here.


1 Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020 August 14, 2020

2 New WBT & Robert Graham Center Analysis: The COVID Pandemic Could Lead to 75,000 Additional Deaths from Alcohol and Drug Misuse and Suicide

3 Well Being Trust, Healing the Nation

4 Land, G., Benefits Pro, “COVID drives demand for virtual mental health, substance abuse treatment,” July 24, 2020.

5 Kaiser Permanente. “Mental health at work – why stigma is a workforce health issue,” March 18, 2019.

5 Source: Ginger, 2019 Workforce Attitudes Toward Behavioral Health - Annual Report