It may be hard to believe when you’re singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” for the umpteenth time, but the holidays aren’t happy for everyone. Some of your employees and coworkers face immense struggles and behavioral health concerns during the holiday season. Common causes? People overextend themselves. Others face financial hardship. Some lean on alcohol or abuse other substances to get through the holidays. And many put undue pressure on themselves.
Throw in COVID-19 with all its problems, and the 2020 holidays could be a challenging time for many people. The pandemic adds the pressures of calculating if you can visit loved ones or not, being socially distant during a festive time, missing important traditions like religious ceremonies and family gatherings and more. In short, the 2020 holiday season will be unlike any before.
“We always hope for a Bing Crosby-type of Christmas, but sometimes it's not as perfect as what we hope for,” said Herbert Price, M.D., DLFAPA, corporate medical director at Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “Holidays are a tough time. Our expectation that the holidays will be perfect often runs into the reality of these issues and problems. Adding COVID-19 is yet another stressor.”
Alcohol and substance use disorders are another reason to be concerned by the convergence of COVID-19 and the holidays this year. Price said the COVID-19 pandemic has seen alcohol and drug use spike—a phenomenon that also occurs each year around the holidays. This perfect storm for increased consumption of alcohol and other substances is another reason to encourage employees to leverage the behavioral health and substance-use benefits at their disposal before there’s a problem.
As an employer, these concerns are not isolated to the holidays; they exacerbate and expose underlying conditions. One in five adults experience a diagnosable mental health condition each year and more than half go untreated. While many of these problems center around family, employers that make a concerted effort to address workforce mental health and substance use disorders can be helpful.
This effort not only improves the quality of life for your employees, it saves your business from some adverse effects, too. Behavioral health and substance use issues can become exponentially more costly the longer they go untreated. And in the United States, employers lose more than 200 million workdays and roughly $16.8 billion in employee productivity each year to mental health conditions and substance use disorders.
“It’s important to catch it early. Get the word out that treatment and support is covered and employees should seek it out long before there’s a crisis that can land them in the hospital,” Price said.
Given the unique circumstances this holiday season, employers can play a significant role in helping their employees. Here are some tips for creating a better culture of health.
Choose a health plan that prioritizes total health
Having a benefits plan that addresses behavioral health is critical, and you could have one for your employees in January, right after the holiday season. Look for a health plan that embraces the interconnectedness of physical and mental health. We call this a whole health approach. While COVID-19 has complicated the challenges of building a healthy workplace culture, it also creates opportunities for employers to have candid conversations with employees about how they’re feeling and what they need to maintain and improve their overall health and well-being.
Arkansas Blue Cross has sharpened its focus on behavioral health in recent years, providing more services and medications without restriction, offering virtual solutions like counseling through telehealth and eliminating utilization management for therapy, so members can quickly seek outpatient help.
“One thing that’s changed over time is that we cover a lot of things we didn’t use to, so there are fewer limitations on people seeking help,” Price said. “We cover the entire continuum of care, including a variety of psychotherapists, social workers, professional counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists.”
Promote your behavioral health benefits
A health plan’s adoption of more behavioral health services isn’t enough. Adoption requires awareness. By creating a culture of regular communication both at the top and grassroots levels, you create opportunities to have real dialogue about what is available, show the importance of taking advantage of behavioral health help when it’s needed and point employees to resources easily and discreetly. Remind your employees about the benefits available to them, like an employee assistance program (EAP) or behavioral telehealth services.
How? Write a blog or update about it on your intranet, have your HR team email employees before the holidays, put up posters in your breakrooms and talk more about behavioral health.
Remember to learn everything that your benefits have to offer. There may be lesser-known features that would benefit an employee. For instance, some EAPs include legal help, like asking questions about custody, billing problems, etc.
Emphasize the confidentiality
Some employees might be concerned their employer will know about them seeking help and think differently of them. First, they must know everything related to behavioral health is strictly confidential. No information is passed from the behavioral health benefits administrator to the employer. Second, promoting the benefits can help destigmatize them. Talking honestly about the importance of good behavioral health is key. When employees feel like good behavioral health is part of company culture, and they know that their participation in behavioral health benefits is confidential and secure, there are fewer barriers toward seeking care.
Engage your employees in total health
There’s help available for all conditions. Whether depression and anxiety, substance use issues like opioid dependence or something else entirely, making your employees aware of their benefits can help them feel comfortable using them.
The holidays aren’t easy for everyone. You can do more to help your workforce. It starts with paying attention to what kind of help they need to be healthy and ensuring your benefits package meets and promotes those needs early and often, so they make it through the holidays and have a happy new year.