For Your Benefit

Minding Mental Health
Studies: Depression costs on the rise.

By Rita Pyrillis

M

ental illness has been a long-avoided topic in the workplace. But as rates of suicide, substance abuse, anxiety and depression increase, more employers are making these issues a top priority.

In fact, 57 percent of employers plan to increase their focus on mental and behavioral health to a great or “very great extent” over the next three years, according to a recent survey by Willis Towers Watson. Those surveyed rank mental illness alongside metabolic syndrome, diabetes and musculoskeletal disorders as top areas of concern. These are chronic conditions that require ongoing treatment, which drive up costs and contribute to lost productivity.

These factors have led more employers to examine the financial impact of mental illness on the workplace, said Darcy Gruttadaro, director, Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

“Recent studies on the cost of depression in the workplace have caught the attention of employers, especially those that address comorbidity,” she said. “When a patient has chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes or cancer, the cost to treat those conditions is two to three times higher when the patient suffers from depression.”

Depression costs the U.S. economy an estimated $210 billion annually, up 21 percent from 2005, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2015. About half of those costs are attributed to workplace absenteeism and reduced productivity and the other half are due to medical costs, the study showed.

However, employers must do a better job of ensuring access to mental health providers and services, according to a recent report by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchasers Coalition, a nonprofit network of business coalitions. The report recommends improving how depression is managed in primary care settings and promoting telehealth as a way to improve access, among other measures.

“If you have primary care offices addressing mental health issues with no special training, then it’s not clear that people getting the care that they need,” said Gruttadaro. “There’s a real push for collaborative care models with well-trained professionals to monitor patient care. Employers can leverage their purchasing power to ask plans for the right data and ask the right questions.”