The Ultimate Guide to Mental Health Benefits: Best Practices from the Experts

The Ultimate Guide to Mental Health Benefits: Best Practices from the Experts

Marc Herold and Ralph Spagnuola

As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re kicking off the conversation on this essential component of healthcare with a multi-part blog series. Check out the other blogs in this series to see why mental healthcare is the most important benefit of 2021, and how you can build a workplace culture that prioritizes mental health.

Mental health has always been important. But now, in the wake of a year marked by isolation, loss, and emotional turmoil, mental healthcare benefits are getting more attention than ever, from HR leaders and employees alike.

As Ellen Meza, Director of Global Benefits at Docusign, so aptly put it, “Today, the big three — medical, dental, vision — is now the big four, with mental healthcare becoming a standard pillar.”

But even though 86% of employers already include mental health services in their offering, many employees don’t take advantage of these benefits.

Of course, mental health is an investment — and as with any other investment, you want to do your homework, so we did it for you.

We talked to experts from leading mental health providers and Fortune 100 companies to determine how HR leaders can build a mental health benefits offering that your employees will use (and love).

Following their insights, we’ve mapped out these four steps to building your best mental health benefits plan:

  1. Get familiar with the forms of mental healthcare
  2. Build a flexible and accessible offering
  3. Communicate and educate
  4. Refine over time

We’ve got some ground to cover, so let’s dive in.

Step One: Get familiar with the forms of mental healthcare

Here’s the thing: implementing an effective mental health plan requires more than just the baseline. Your plan probably already covers some level of mental healthcare or psychiatric services, but you may want to supplement with additional perks or get creative in how you roll them out to employees.

But before you can start building out your plan, you’ll need to understand the different kinds of mental healthcare available today.

Here are some of the major treatments and practices that make up mental healthcare:

Therapy – Traditionally this means working one-on-one with a licensed provider to work through issues and develop personalized treatment plans. But today, therapy can take many forms.

Therapists often specialize in treating people with specific diagnoses, identities, or past trauma. For example, there are therapists who are trained to work with patients who identify as LGBTQ+, or are working through marriage problems, or managing PTSD. By understanding the nuances of these specific traits, they are more likely to provide effective care for their patients’ unique situations.

And if one-on-one therapy isn’t ideal, there are also options for group therapy, family therapy, couple’s therapy, and support groups.

Psychiatric care – For patients who are living with ongoing mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, visiting a psychiatrist can help make life more manageable.

Psychiatrists work with their patients to identify a diagnosis and treatment plan based on their symptoms. This may mean prescribing medication, scheduling regular psychotherapy sessions, or referring them to additional providers.

Behavioral health – Mental health issues can influence your day-to-day habits, like eating, drinking, or exercising. Behavioral health addresses that connection between the body and the mind. These services can treat a range of concerns, such as substance abuse or eating disorders.

Mental Wellness – While mental health focuses on how we think and feel, wellness refers to the practices or routines that help us maintain a healthy mental state. This could mean setting aside time for daily meditation, taking digital detoxes, or following a healthy sleep schedule.

The major differentiation between mental health and mental wellness is that wellness is entirely self-driven — but there are several programs and apps to help keep you on track. It’s all about how you take care of yourself when no one is looking. And just like mental health, it’s an ongoing journey.

Mental healthcare is most effective when it’s combined with mental wellness practices. In other words, you’re more likely to achieve longterm stability if you make sustainable changes to your overall lifestyle.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) – Although they may not have the same level of personalized support offered by ongoing care, EAPs can be a short-term solution to help your employees navigate difficult situations.

Step Two: Build a flexible and accessible offering

Ask yourself honestly (and no judgment!) — does your mental health benefits offering give your employees the freedom to design a bespoke treatment plan that works for them? And once they find the right plan, will they be able to afford it?

If there’s anything you need to know about mental healthcare, it’s this: “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to behavioral health and mental health,” says Marcus Osborne, SVP of Walmart Health (and Nava Advisor). “For some people, a more traditional 1-on-1, in-person talk therapy approach works. For others, digitally-enabled solutions are more effective… Understanding that the solution needs to be omnichannel in nature is the most critical.”

That’s why it’s important to ensure that your employees are able to develop their own mental health plan that’s uniquely tailored to their lifestyle, culture, and needs.

Think of each benefit as a piece of the overall mental healthcare puzzle.

Finding the right treatment plan will sometimes mean getting care from multiple sources. For example, some people will benefit from therapy alone. Others will want psychiatric services for long-term care but may also connect with your EAP to resolve short-term issues.

Together your benefits partners can act as a safety net for your employees, identifying issues as they emerge and recommending additional treatment options.

Kelley Elliott, Managing Director of Global Rewards at Delta (and Nava Advisor), describes how you can encourage their collaboration: “Make sure all of your benefit plan partners, from medical insurance to EAP to other resources, are aware of each other and are able to refer to other resources.

“As an example, if one of our health plan advocates notices during a call with one of our employees that they could benefit form mental health coaching, they refer them to our EAP and other mental health resources… Even if they are just one slice of our health and wellbeing program, we expect that they help our people get to the right solution.”

Consider that mental health looks different for each person — and benefits should be designed with diversity in mind.

Mental health benefits are crucial to strengthening your Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives. So when building your offering, be sure it can meet the needs of people from all walks of life.

“We all know that diverse populations face unique challenges in accessing care,” writes Amber Lyon from the mental healthcare provider Spring Health, “so HR teams need to double down on their commitment to serving them by requiring that benefits and wellness decisions are not made in rooms occupied entirely by cisgendered white men.”

Be sure that your plan also covers behavioral health services.

Osborne pointed out that behavioral health can sometimes be left out of mental health plans. “I think that side is sometimes forgotten. Making sure you have it as part of your plan solutions to address behavioral health concerns — particularly around issues like opioid addiction or alcohol addiction — is critical.”

Keep the cost of care low, and help employees pay if you can.

Unfortunately, the cost of care can be an immediate barrier. In fact, mental healthcare is considered to be one of the costliest forms of healthcare.

Lyon recommends that HR leaders offer additional financial support, so that their employees don’t shoulder high out-of-pocket costs on their own. “Many companies I’ve been working with this year have actually reduced cost sharing down significantly, say from a $50 copay down to $25 for a mental health visit. Some employers have even eliminated cost sharing altogether and are covering 100% of visits with $0 copays.”

If your employer uses a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) strategy, Lyon suggests that employers make contributions to their employees’ Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), “so quality care is still attainable before members hit their deductibles.”

Offer a choice between in-person or virtual therapy.

“Explore opportunities to leverage digital offerings,” Osborne emphasized. “They offer scalable and increasingly effective ways to address mental and behavioral health issues.”

In-person vs virtual treatment: Both options have pros and cons. Virtual therapy offers accessible treatment plans without any need for a commute. Still, some prefer in-person sessions. Giving your employees the flexibility to choose their preference is an important step towards creating a plan that works for them.

The pandemic caused a significant uptick in virtual therapy use — and many found that they prefer it. “Virtual behavioral health visits drove some of the largest increases in telemedicine usage during the pandemic,” Kara Lulley from the telemedicine provider First Stop Health pointed out, “and data shows that patients may prefer to keep mental health visits virtual permanently.”

If you do choose to offer virtual therapy, there are a number of emerging companies connecting patients with qualified counselors. Lyra Health and Talkspace both provide virtual counseling sessions to thousands of patients across the nation.

Step Three: Communicate and educate

Simply offering these benefits may not be enough. To keep your employees engaged and educated, you’ll want to give them the information and guidance they’ll need — no matter how familiar they are with mental health.

Educate your employees on what this benefit means and how to use it.

That may mean going a step further than simply including it in your annual benefits renewal communications. If you make mental healthcare a footnote, that’s how your employees will perceive it.

Instead, make it clear that this benefit is an important piece of their overall healthcare plan. You could hold a webinar on how to make the most of this benefit. Or you could feature it prominently in your internal newsletter.

You may find that some employees think that these benefits are reserved for dire situations. To combat this misunderstanding, Elliott recommends that HR leaders frame mental healthcare to be as essential as physical check-ups. “Everyone needs to take steps to protect this part of your health even if you are experiencing no issues today. Think of it as a preventive measure to staying healthy!”

Others may feel intimidated by clinical terminology, so try switching up the words you use to describe treatment. Federico Ruiz from the wellbeing marketplace Careots recommends you try “reorienting the positioning/messaging, and instead, providing ‘guidance and resources’ to those who are thriving, struggling, and suffering. By reframing, employees are more likely to opt in early to improve their wellbeing and build resilience, therefore reducing their need for treatment seeking help.”

Keep in mind that the best kind of mental health benefits education is ongoing.

“The one constant in life is change — you might be in a totally different place at the end of the year than at the start of it,” Lyon writes. “HR leaders should highlight key benefits in their ecosystem on a regular basis instead of just sprinting for the annual open enrollment period.”

By keeping that door open and conversation flowing year round, you say that mental healthcare is not a one-and-done. It’s about the journey, not the destination — and there’s no wrong time to start.

Plus, you never know who might need to hear it at that moment. The right communication at the right time may be the push one employee needs to make their first appointment. And that in itself would be a win.

Help your employees navigate their care choices.

Finding the right provider isn’t always simple. It’s almost like dating — not everyone is going to meet their therapist “soulmate” on the first go.

It can also be very discouraging to find the right fit, only to discover that they’re out-of-network. And unfortunately, mental healthcare is four to six times more likely to be out of network than medical or surgical care.

Searching for a provider can be frustrating, both for the employer and their employees. “Our client success team recently spoke to an employer who needed help finding a provider for one of their employees,” Colleen Locke, Nava’s Director of Client Success, told us. “They had spent hours calling around to multiple in-network therapists, but no one was accepting new patients. On top of that, they were not getting the support they needed from their current broker, so they reached out to us.”

To ease the burden, direct your employees towards resources like Alma and Zocdoc. These sites make it easy to browse providers and read patient reviews before booking an appointment. “We were able to recommend Zocdoc,” Colleen says, “And they were so thankful to have some direction.”

Step Four: Refine over time

The mental health space is changing by the day. Everywhere you look, there’s a new service or provider offering another solution.

That’s because new research is emerging all the time. What we know now about mental health is much more advanced than what we knew even ten years ago.

You don’t have to feel pressured to keep up with the Joneses — but it’s definitely worth it to regularly update your benefits offering to reflect the latest research and trends.

Think about offering additional wellness programs and perks.

Sure, going to therapy is a great start, but most people will have better results if they also incorporate wellness practices into their daily routines. Giving your employees the option to enroll in wellness programs that encourage healthy behaviors can help lay that foundation.

For example, meditation is proven to help reduce stress and develop a healthier mindset at work and in life. Several meditation programs like the Calm app offer discounted group rates to employers for that reason. (As a bonus, Calm is currently offering a free one-year subscription to all HR professionals, so you can try it out first.)

Make sure you take a step back, reassess, and improve your benefits regularly.

You may have realized by now that effective mental healthcare isn’t stagnant. What worked when you launched your benefits plan may no longer pack the same punch of effectiveness further down the line.

Checking in on your plan’s level of engagement and utilization can offer some clarity on what’s working — and what needs work. Most vendors will be able to provide high-level utilization data, or how many individuals have accessed the program and through what avenue.

But the best way to gauge effectiveness? Ask your employees! Lyon emphasized that employee feedback can be a priceless tool for improving your benefits plan. “HR leaders should empower employees through committees and ERGs to provide feedback on wellness programming so no one falls through the cracks.”

As mental health becomes more normalized, there are new services and providers popping up all the time. To keep your employees engaged, consider adding new perks and benefits to your plan every once in a while.

In the end, Kelley says, going that extra mile is so worth it — both for your employees’ health and your budget. “In the grand scheme of overall health and wellness program costs, these investments are small and can go a long way to helping people feel very well supported by you as their employer.”

What else can I do to take our mental health plan from good to great?

While offering mental healthcare benefits is a great start, it’s only step one. To truly level up on mental health, you have to bake it into your company culture itself.

Want to learn how to build an internal culture that prioritizes mental health for your employees? Check out the next installment in our Mental Health Awareness Month series, Three Signs that Your Workplace Culture Values Mental Health!

About the Authors

Ralph Spagnuola is a Partner at Nava with over 20 years in the healthcare benefits space. Leveraging tools and technology, he is dedicated to helping small-to-midsized companies navigate the growing complexity of the healthcare industry. 
Marc Herold is a Partner at Nava where he is focused on helping organizations find creative solutions to rising healthcare costs. He has been building and consulting on employee benefit plans at leading brokerage consulting firms in the Northeast for over 14 years and has been in the industry for over 2 decades. 

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