Looking ahead: The future of behavioral health

Once awareness has been addressed, the next step in improving behavioral health care is to work closely on integrating behavioral benefits with other programs. (Image: Shutterstock)


Looking ahead: The future of behavioral health

Employers must take a holistic approach to employee benefits plans, integrating robust physical, emotional and behavioral offerings.


The employee benefits landscape has greatly shifted as we enter the new decade. From disruptive technology to ever-diversifying plan offerings, benefit programs look far different today than they did ten years ago.

In 2020, benefits managers and employers have multiple hot-button issues on their radar, from attracting and retaining talent to managing high cost claimants and helping employees navigate their benefits and health care. However, one area that must not be overlooked is behavioral health.

Employers must take a holistic approach to employee benefits plans, integrating robust physical, emotional and behavioral offerings into their health care strategies. Why? Recent studies show that one out of five American adults are affected each year by mental health and substance use disorders and that 62 percent of missed workdays are attributable to mental health conditions, demonstrating that improved workforce emotional well-being has a productivity and bottom-line impact.

5 pillars of behavioral health Access and quality of care

Though the availability of mental health benefits has continued to expand, there is still much work to be done in terms of access. Most important is the shift from an employee-centric to family-centric model. Spouses and dependents coping with various behavioral and mental health issues can have a tremendous impact on absenteeism and the ability for employees to be productive while at work.

Data-driven approaches to developing or expanding provider networks based on national clinical guidelines are essential to optimize care. Moreover, the use of innovative vendors and digital approaches can augment the traditional in-person service delivery models.

Destigmatization and awareness

Mental illness still carries a heavy stigma in the workplace. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that eight out of 10 people suffering from mental illness report feelings of shame, and more than one-third express concerns about job security. Talking openly about mental health and illness and demonstrating genuine support from senior leadership are key components in shifting the narrative. Another seemingly obvious, but very important, part of raising awareness is making the time during open enrollment and throughout the year to share information and explain the different behavioral health programs that are being offered.

Integration and navigation

Once awareness has been addressed, the next step in improving behavioral health care is to work closely on integrating behavioral benefits with other programs and improving use of services and the ease of navigation. Part of the problem is that, although programs may be offered, the resources to assist with navigating the systems are lacking.

With many programs available via mobile apps or digitally, employees need to understand benefits are at their fingertips and can even be accessed privately. Virtual and telehealth behavioral solutions enable employees to have discussions from the comfort of their own homes rather than meeting face to face with a professional.

Substance abuse prevention and treatment

One major component of behavioral health programs is substance abuse support. With opioids accounting for nearly 70 percent of the more than 70,000 drug overdoses annually, prevention and treatment programs are vital. As the cultural view has begun to shift to seeing substance abuse as an illness, there has been growth in the offerings of behavioral health programs addressing the issue.

Recently, 67 percent of organizations polled by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) reported offering substance abuse treatment coverage/benefits.

Social determinants of health

Social determinants of health are conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes. It is important to recognize the benefits of improving health and well-being, given the lens of social determinants, and how these can vary greatly from employer to employer and employee to employee. For example, a company whose workforce has low English literacy would do well to share information in multiple languages to ensure everyone is reached in a way they can understand.

Looking to the future

Over the past few years, considerable progress has been made in behavioral health offerings.

In 2020, that great work must continue, but new perspectives and changes must be considered as well. As the workforce becomes more and more global, with a rise in telecommuting and business travel, offerings too must become more flexible and global. Employers will need to ensure access to health care is easily available – no matter where an employee or their family is at a given time.

By focusing on holistic integration and the five pillars, employers can help achieve a new era in behavioral health offerings and work toward a vastly healthier and more productive workforce. At the same time, doing so presents a strong opportunity for cost savings. The Milliman Report Summary estimates that 9 percent to 17 percent of additional spending, or $19 to $38 billion annually, could be saved through effective integration of medical and behavioral care services.


Dr. Joel Axler is the national behavioral health leader for Strategic Benefit Advisors, an affiliated company of Brown & Brown Insurance.


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