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How HR can help workers access mental healthcare amid a therapy shortage

Finding a therapist who’s available and in-network can be challenging, but there are steps HR can take to address coverage gaps.
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Hannah Minn

· 4 min read

Employers offering health benefits have recently seen an uptick in workers using mental health services. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted between February and July 2022, 48% of large firms and 22% of small firms reported the percentage of workers receiving these services increased over the last year. Some firms also reported taking steps to expand the availability of mental health services by adding new providers for both virtual and in-person care.

But even as more employers are seeking to expand mental healthcare offerings, a shortage of providers in the US often complicates access to care. Finding a therapist who’s available and in-network can prove challenging, especially given many don’t take insurance.

“It’s definitely something we’ve heard about…not just internally from our own employees, but also externally,” said Keshar Sheridan, head of people at Grow Therapy, an online platform that helps independent therapists launch in-network practices. She added that the problem is likely much larger than HR leaders realize, as “there’s still so much of a taboo around asking for help, for therapy, [or] needing psychological support.”

While HR departments won’t be able to solve a longstanding shortage of mental health providers, there are steps they can take to address gaps in coverage.

Understand your offerings. Addressing the therapy shortage starts with understanding the depth and scope of programs insurance carriers offer, said Erin Young, senior director of health, equity, and well-being at WTW.

“It’s really about teasing apart some of those things that we haven’t looked so deeply at,” Young told HR Brew.

Young recommends HR leaders keep an open line of communication with insurance carriers, and let them know if mental health and behavioral health is a priority for the company. “If there’s new behavioral health, or mental health programs, or partnerships or solutions coming out,” she said, HR departments can ask to “be informed about that within a reasonable amount of time” so those offerings can be pushed out to employees.

HR departments are in a position to drive better accountability from insurance companies when it comes to mental healthcare, said Pat Wadors, chief people officer at workforce management company UKG.

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“HR leaders…have a huge opportunity to influence the care providers,” Wadors told HR Brew. “If you have a high concentration of employees in a certain area,” for example, “make sure they’re curating the right network of mental health providers…Explore the technology to help close the gap.”

Think outside the box. Employers may also look into offering technological solutions, such as telehealth, wellness, or meditation apps, to provide some level of support beyond traditional therapy, according to experts who spoke with HR Brew.

If HR departments are concerned employees aren’t accessing adequate mental health services through traditional healthcare plans, they can consider investing in benefits specifically geared toward this type of care. Oyster, an HR software platform, offers four free therapy sessions a month to its employees through the platform Plumm, according to Kim Rohrer, its principal people partner. This service is offered as a perk separate from workers’ medical plans, she said, and was chosen in part because Oyster has a distributed workforce, with employees based around the world.

“We have people who are in all corners of the world experiencing all types of things,” said Rohrer. “And to expect that one baseline healthcare plan is going to be able to cover that seems impossible.”

Even if companies don’t have extra resources to pour into mental health benefits for employees, there are other ways they can offer a baseline level of support. Rohrer and Young both pointed to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) as one more readily available option for workers seeking mental healthcare. EAPs may provide a range of services, including counseling, at no cost to the employee.

Allotting time off for mental health is another option. Grow Therapy allows their employees to take off two, three hours a week for their mental health, Sheridan noted. Oyster has told employees that leave is available for workers who want to take a mental health day, even if they’re not physically ill, according to Rohrer.

“There’s a lot of things that you can do to have a culture of mental health and wellness without having to invest in it as your premium benefit,” Rohrer said.—CV

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.