Putting Mental Well-being in a Better Place

The figure shared at this week’s IBI Forum in San Francisco is pretty jarring: Mental-health conditions are costing employers more than $80 billion in medical expenses and productivity losses per year. Yes, that’s right: $80 billion!

ThinkstockPhotos-462419617So I guess it’s not surprising that behavioral health was the focus of more than a few sessions at this year’s conference, which attracted around 500 people to the City by the Bay.

At the plenary session titled Behavioral Health and Its Impact on Productivity and the Workplace, Pacific Resources’ Vice President of Global Employer Solutions Patricia Purdy pointed out that employers still have a long way to go in their efforts to get their hands around the issue of mental well-being.

“When it comes to thinking about mental health and well-being, organizations are woefully behind,” Purdy said.

In her presentation, she referred to behavioral health as a “frontier,” adding that her word choice was “purposeful, because we’re still really on the cutting edge of helping organizations think about mental health and mental well-being.”

During a conference titled “The Productivity Summit: Improving Behavioral Health and Well-being in the Workplace,” held last May at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Purdy and others even devoted some time to talking about names, she said. “Do we call it behavioral health? Do we call it mental illness? Mental wellness? Mental well-being? Behavioral well-being?”

One of the challenges businesses face today, Purdy said, is coming up with a common lexicon that can be used to talk about the subject, in a way that’s “not threatening to employees.”

The panelists at the IBI session—which included Johnson & Johnson Chief Medical Officer Fikry Isaac; Georgetown University’s Robert Carr (director of its master’s program in health systems administration); and Sedgwick Senior Vice President of Corporate Development, M&A and Healthcare Kimberly George—also touched on making the business case for mental-health investment.

Purdy noted that people at the Carter Center summit said more data is needed to build the business case. But, she added, the truth is there’s already “scads and scads of data.”

The problem, she explained, isn’t that companies don’t have the data; it’s whether or not they can translate that data into the language of the business—so business leaders “understand what we’re talking about.”

As J&J’s Isaac put it, those in the profession need be able to explain to business leaders what’s in it for them and why health, including behavior health, matters.

Presenters also made the case for integrating mental health into other processes. Georgetown’s Carr pointed out, for example, that mental well-being is integrated into GSK’s annual employee survey. (Carr retired from the pharma company in 2014.)

The company, for instance, wanted to know if employees had the resources they needed, he said.

Also, at GSK, one of the six key leadership expectations is to “release energy in others,” he said, adding that the company helps those leaders lacking in this area to build this competency.

Behavioral health was nowhere to be found in the title of a breakout session later that morning, but it was nevertheless an important part of the discussion. The session, titled A Report from the Front Lines of Mindfulness-Based Programs: Four Years of Data from More than 100 Employers, looked at the benefits of mindfulness through the lens of a pioneering employer in this area: Aetna Inc.

As Aetna Wellness Program Strategy Lead Cheryl Jones explained, “mindfulness is about being in the present moment—paying attention to what’s happening around you in an open way.”

Since Aetna launched its program back in 2009, Jones said, it has seen a number of positive results, including a significant drop in employee stress levels.

Aetna—which uses eMindful as a vendor—also enjoys a remarkable participation rate: 13,000 of its 50,000 workers. (That compares to an average of 17 percent across all eMindful clients, reported co-presenter and eMindful CEO Kelley McGabe Ruff.)

Of course, having a CEO who is very publicly passionate about mindfulness doesn’t hurt. As some of you may be aware, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini credits mindfulness and yoga with helping him manage his pain, following a skiing accident that almost took his life in 2004.

“Recovery is a state of mind,” he told a morning news show last year. “It’s not just a physical practice, and … if you get your mind in the right place, you can do almost anything [while] managing pain.”

Jones told the audience that Bertolini plans to announce Aetna’s next step in its mindfulness journey at next week’s Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco. She said it will involve “creating a more mindful culture.” Guess we’ll have to wait until then for the specifics.