Work life

Ask a Resourceful Human: How can I get employees to take advantage of mental health benefits?

Just 8% of employees who have access to mental health counseling through an employee assistance plan actually use it. Here’s how you can change that.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Welcome to our regular HR advice column, Ask a Resourceful Human. Here to answer all of your burning questions is Erin Grau, the co-founder and COO of Charter, a media and services company that aims to transform the workplace. Erin has over 15 years of experience at the intersection of talent and operations in global organizations and startups, including the New York Times and Away. You can sign up for the free Charter newsletter about the future of work here.

Nearly 40% of US employers have expanded their mental health benefits since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. If your company was part of that cohort, but few employees have chosen to use the benefits, you may be wondering: What can HR do about it?

Know that you’re not alone! Though one-fifth of US adults experience mental illness, just 8% of employees who have access to mental health counseling through an employee assistance plan actually use it, according to the Wall Street Journal. This can create a critical retention problem, especially among younger workers, who are more likely to leave a job for mental health reasons.

If your mental health benefits are being underutilized, focus your efforts on these four areas:

Make mental health benefits easy to understand and access. Create easy explainers on how to sign up and make the best use of the benefits and post them to your company’s intranet. Visual instructions are often less intimidating than text-heavy ones, so consider annotating screenshots or recording videos using a platform such as Loom.

Promote the benefits. Benefits may need to be communicated differently depending on the employee population. Try holding benefit education sessions or adding a standing agenda item to company-wide meetings focused on highlighting benefits. And take advantage of internal messaging platforms: I recently spoke with a CHRO who sends regular Slack messages to workers about their organization’s mental health benefits, including usage stats, employee feedback, and news of forthcoming benefits.

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You might also consider sending a quick, company-wide survey about benefits to better understand what is and isn’t working, so you can then address it. And ask for testimonials—even if anonymous! Social proof can be the best incentive.

Ensure managers understand the benefits and model positive mental health practices. Encourage leaders to speak openly about their own mental health, sharing when they step away for a midday therapy session or take a mental health day. If they’ve used the benefits, ask if they’d be willing to share their experience.

Create a culture where mental health is valued, and employees feel empowered to use the benefits. Work to reduce the stigma around mental health through social connection, education, and peer support. Consider establishing a mental health employee resource group, or if you already have one, partner to help educate employees about how your company’s benefits can support them. And don’t forget to discuss privacy: Employees may feel more comfortable using benefits if they understand what information will remain confidential and what may be collected. To promote privacy, encourage them to sign up using their personal email addresses.

Document company norms around taking time off for appointments and mental health breaks, and offer scheduling flexibility so people can use the benefits at their convenience. This might involve adding “caregiving” and “taking a break” to your Slack global status updates so employees can share when they are caring for themselves.

Amid elevated rates of mental health problems, it’s more important than ever to get this right.—EG

Have ideas for improving mental health at your organization? Let us know at [email protected]. Anonymity is assured.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.