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As national attention turns to rising drug abuse and suicide rates, employers slow to act

Health and Benefits|Integrated Wellbeing

March 27, 2019

Despite the highest rates of alcohol-, drug- and suicide-related deaths since 1999, a majority of employers have no plans to focus on opioid abuse (55%) and suicide prevention (63%).

ARLINGTON, VA, March 27, 2019 — Despite the highest rates of alcohol-, drug- and suicide-related deaths since 1999, a majority of employers have no plans to focus on opioid abuse (55%) and suicide prevention (63%). This, according to the 2019 Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey: Mental Health released today by Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW), a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company.

In fact, only 22% of employers currently have or plan to implement programs to address opioid use and suicide prevention in 2019. An additional 23% are considering initiatives to prevent opioid abuse in 2020 or 2021 while 15% are considering programs to prevent suicide over the same time frame. Employers can take action by partnering with outside vendors, offering education programs or sponsoring worksite campaigns.

“The nation’s workforces are not immune from the critical mental and behavioral health issues sadly affecting millions of Americans, yet many employers are slow to put programs into place,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, M.D., Health Management practice co-leader at Willis Towers Watson. “Employers have a significant opportunity to do more to address the stigma tied to mental illness and help employees get the care they need — avoiding devastating consequences.”

More generally, in the area of broader behavioral health and wellbeing, the survey found that 70% of employers are currently taking or plan to take action by 2021, showing a willingness to tackle pervasive societal stigmas relating to mental health and illness over time. These actions include reducing the taboo associated with mental illness by encouraging open discussion and building a judgment-free culture, and partnering with an outside vendor to provide support relating to mental health services and resources; however, fewer than half of employers (46%) have taken any action around mental and behavioral health for 2019.

“The fact that employers are starting to address mental or behavioral health is encouraging; however, the lack of specific action on drug use and suicide is alarming,” said Mandie Conforti, L.C.S.W., senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson. “It would be dangerous for employers to simply ‘check the box’ on improved employee assistance programs [EAPs] and unintentionally lull themselves into a false sense of security that addiction and suicide won’t impact their workforce. These are real and difficult issues that require close attention and monitoring.”

Beyond the immense impact that anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide can have on workplace morale, job satisfaction and engagement, behavioral health issues make a financial impact on companies as well. Willis Towers Watson analysis finds that employees suffering from these clinical conditions tend to amass two to four times more medical claims and six times more emergency room visits.

“If care for the welfare, productivity and retention of employees isn’t sufficient motivation for employers to act fast to bring adequate access to behavioral health care services, the financial strain of stress, anxiety, depression, suicide and substance abuse on their bottom line simply cannot be ignored,” added Conforti.

Another recent Willis Towers Watson study shows that employers worry about access to comprehensive and high-quality mental health services. When it comes to adequate access, employers ranked mental health (54%) and substance abuse treatment (47%) their top areas of significant concern, according to the 2018 Willis Towers Watson Health Care Access and Delivery Survey.

The good news is that there are myriad strategies employers can implement in the near term to address concerns around behavioral health:

  1. Ensure frictionless access to care:
    • Provide robust behavioral health coverage with significantly improved access to networks and high-quality providers.
    • Consider telemedicine and onsite or near-site behavioral health care delivery options. The 2018 Willis Towers Watson Health Care Access and Delivery Survey found 39% of employers have offered near-site behavioral health counseling for their employees, with 4% planning to offer it this year and another 12% considering the services for 2020.
    • Offer comprehensive EAP services for members.
  2. Build a supportive culture:
    • Foster an open environment where people can talk about mental health and suicide prevention without stigma. Consider launching a suicide awareness and prevention campaign now or during National Suicide Prevention Week in September.
    • Provide targeted manager training, including annual EAP and mental health first-aid courses.
    • Incorporate behavioral health into diversity and inclusion initiatives.
    • Educate employees about the risks of opioid use and how to responsibly dispose of unused drugs to protect loved ones.
  3. Reimagine benefit programs to account for holistic, integrated wellbeing:
    • Financial, emotional, social and physical health are inextricably connected and correlated. Keep in mind the impact that financial strain, a new medical diagnosis, workplace stress or not feeling able to bring your whole self to work can have on employees’ mental health.

About the survey

The Willis Towers Watson Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey: Mental Health was completed by 535 U.S. employers in January 2019. Respondents collectively employ 5.5 million employees and operate in all major industry sectors. Results provided are based on employers with at least 100 employees.

About Willis Towers Watson

Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW) is a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company that helps clients around the world turn risk into a path for growth. With roots dating to 1828, Willis Towers Watson has 45,000 employees serving more than 140 countries and markets. We design and deliver solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent, and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals. Our unique perspective allows us to see the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas — the dynamic formula that drives business performance. Together, we unlock potential.

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