Mental Health Plans are Good for Business

Apple founder Steve Jobs lived with mental health issues. So did cosmetics mogul, Estee Lauder. Media tycoon, Ted Turner, has also written about living with mental illness. These and many other executives struggle with mental illness, which is gradually changing minds and practices within the business community.

But the gradual pace of change of mental health coverage in employee health plans impedes business. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the annual cost of untreated mental illness is more than $300 billion for US business.  Some of this is in lost productivity, but much of it is out of pocket dollars paid in disability benefits and health care expenditures related to substance abuse, depression, anxiety and other chronic mental health issues.

It is no wonder that mental illness costs so much: one in four Americans live with a mental health issue each year. That is nearly 58 million people nationwide.

An increasingly relevant topic among employers – with the Affordable Care Act providing the nudge — is adapting health plans to reflect greater balance between services for mental and physical health.

Definitive links between physical and mental health

Fifteen chronic health conditions (coronary heart disease, obesity, cancer, congestive heart failure and others) account for 80 percent of medical expenses. Interestingly, eight high-risk behaviors (poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, inadequate stress management and others) are largely responsible for these conditions. Treatment for anxiety disorders, clinical depression and substance abuse are costly as well. Studies show that untreated behavioral health conditions represent the third most costly medical condition in the nation, totaling $75 billion per year.

Coverage for the range of mental health conditions is essential in modern health plans.  Such coverage reduces overall health care costs and can improve productivity.  The more complete the mental health offering in your health plan (coupled with an equally robust effort to promote it among employees), the better your business will be at detecting issues early.  This will enable employee to access appropriate support and also reduce more costly long-term health issues that can drain profit out of your businesses.

What types of mental health coverage is important and why?

The mental health struggles that employees encounter are no different than the general population.  Issues range from anxiety, stress, substance abuse and depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability among people 14-44. WHO also reports that by the year 2020, depression alone will be the number two cause of disability worldwide. Mental and behavioral health issues now account for more disability than any other group of illnesses, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

In years past, mental health coverage in employee health plans typically consisted of limited EAP options and strict limitations on office visits.  However, since the passage of the Affordable Care act in 2014,wise employers are taking the opportunity to build truly holistic health plans.

Inadequate Mental Health Coverage Costs Businesses of All Sizes

Many of the most costly health issues for employers are rooted in employee behavioral health struggles.  Companies of all sizes and across all industries would benefit from expanded mental health coverage.  Regardless of the size of your business, the cost of untreated behavioral health issues impact the things that all businesses have in common: productivity, physical wellness and emotional health of their employees.  Contrary to the argument that mental health coverage costs too much, a 2009 report by Global HR News found that adopting robust mental health benefits in health plans adds less than 3 percent the total cost of the plan.

Not surprisingly, there is strong evidence that businesses that do invest in adequate and integrated care, which includes behavioral health, realize significant savings. According to a 2004 report by Mental HealthWorks, global technology giant IBM saved half a million dollars in outpatient costs by integrating care services to include behavioral health, medical, pharmacy, disability, disease management and EAPs. They reduced employee time off from work and minimized costs through less administrative work and duplication.


Mental illness in the workplace is not new.  Both business leaders and rank and file employees live with mental conditions daily, just as they live with medical conditions. A cultural environment that is now more open to mental illness and access to treatment services affords business leaders the opportunity to place greater emphasis on the mental health of their employees now more than ever before.

Commitment to robust mental health benefits in your health plan not only will enhance the overall health and productivity of your employees; it will also have a direct impact on your bottom line.

[bs_well size=”md”]David R. Stone, Ph.D., is Chief Executive Officer of Sound Mental Health, one of King County’s most comprehensive behavioral health providers. The nonprofit, celebrating its 50th year in 2016, serves more than 19,000 men, women, children and elders through 80 diverse programs. To learn more, visit[/bs_well]


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