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We Need a New Model for Mental Health Benefits

For founders and chief people officers trying to attract top talent, offering robust mental health benefits seems like a no-brainer. So why aren’t workers using them?

A renowned psychiatrist specializing in trauma goes on a popular podcast. The host suggests psychiatry is a crude science. Aren’t you just throwing stuff against the wall? he asks.

Yes and no, the psychiatrist responds. Trauma is complicated. Traditionally, we have relied on talk therapy and medication. But in his experience—more than thirty years in the field—synchronous movement and human touch have just as much healing potential as Prozac. 

“I’m still waiting for the study comparing tango dancing with cognitive behavioral therapy,” he says. “I’m a scientist, it’s an empirical question. But I put my money on tango dancing over C.B.T.”

That psychiatrist is Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, which argues that  normative trauma keeps our bodies on high alert long after danger has passed. Sure, talk therapy can help. But there are also a whole suite of other practices that make it safe for us to inhabit our bodies and feel our feelings, which is how healing happens. It doesn’t matter what you choose. Tango lessons, improv theater, ketamine therapy. The point is there are options.

That’s precisely what many high-skilled workers feel is missing from their benefits package: optionality. 

What companies get wrong about mental health

The data is clear that employee wellbeing is linked to productivity and profit. Many studies have shown a significant correlation between employee satisfaction and employee productivity. 

But a 2019 HBS study found that there’s a substantial misalignment between what companies are offering and what people actually want. The survey also showed that 64% of companies offer flexible work hours and 60% offer maternity leave. Those numbers should be higher, but they’re great compared to the percentage of companies offering counseling services: 39%. 

80% of employees report mental health stigma in the workplace.

Research from McKinsey dug in deeper to the disconnect: 65% of employers think that they’re doing a good job of supporting employee mental health. Only 51% of employee respondents agreed.

Part of the issue is the stigma around telling anyone remotely connected to your livelihood that you’re struggling with anything at all. According to the McKinsey study, 80% of employees report mental health stigma in the workplace. Anti-stigma awareness campaigns can chip away at that but just 23% of employers have implemented one. Seventy-nine percent of employees said such a campaign would be valuable. 

But there’s a catch.

Most people don’t use mental health benefits, even when they’re free

One complication to the narrative that companies aren't doing enough is that even when a company does have a robust offering for counseling services, 55% of employees never make use of it, according to one study.

Whatever the precise explanation for this—it presents something of paradox to those interested in supporting employee mental health.

As Sam Slaughter, founder of the content agency Lighthouse Creative Group, pointed out, “The thing with benefits in general is that they favor people with families. Why penalize someone for being single? So we just set the benefit and allow people to disperse it at will.”

Lighthouse introduced the We Got Y’all Benefit on top of their more traditional healthcare package. It can be deployed across a broad array of needs, like if an employee is seeking an abortion or gender reassignment surgery. Or if they’re trying to make a down payment on a house. “It’s not for vacations,” Slaughter said. “Ketamine therapy was the line.” 

Meaning: ketamine therapy is covered. (There’s a startup for that, too.)

Joon is a platform built to offer just this kind of optionality. It’s a benefit aggregator which allows employees to spend a stipend on fitness memberships, teletherapy, or—why not?—salad. 

Well-funded health insurance plans with small premiums are great. But many younger employees don’t engage the healthcare system that frequently. What they need instead is preventative mental and physical care, which isn’t typically covered by health insurance. 

4 mental health vendors that should be on founders' radar

Mental health is not something that can always be “figured out.” Being serious about mental health in the workplace means taking a multi-pronged approach. And supporting employee mental health requires more care than just throwing out a few BetterHelp credits every month. 

That’s why optionality is key. 

Not all employers will be open to paying for psychedelic therapy, even if there are now extremely well-funded providers offering medically supervised treatments for depression and anxiety on Madison Avenue. So we found under-the-radar, emerging companies that founders and HR leaders should know.

OURS

OURS is a platform for modern premarital counseling for couples who want to talk about the little stuff before it becomes the big stuff. The founder, Jessica Holton, went on Adam Grant’s Work Life podcast to workshop her pitch. 

“Couples increasingly are turning to couples therapy proactively to invest in their relationship,” Holton said. “And yet, couples therapy today isn't serving their needs the right way. It's antiquated. It's hard to get started. It's expensive and largely inaccessible… What we found is that this hybrid approach to couples therapy and relationship health incorporating both the magic of a therapist relationship with their couple, and the power of technology and content, enables us to provide couples with proactive relationship health at any life stage in an effective and truly transformational way.”

Grant decided to invest. (Disclosure: Grant is also an investor in A.Team.)

MindMed

Then there’s MindMed, which helps patients unlock the healing power of the mind through psychedelic therapy. If you’re a little skeptical, that’s understandable. But their investors are betting $204M that it’ll catch on. 

Dr. Miri Halperin Wernli, President and Head of Clinical Development, explains it like this: “The psychedelic molecules don’t by themselves address the underlying biological, psychological or social causes of the mental illness. What psychedelic medicine allows us to do is to help patients open their eyes, in a safe and professional environment, on their wounds and deep conflicts, process them, and create new meanings.”

Spring Health

Spring Health is a mental health startup that can replace a company’s employee assistance program (EAP) and provide access to therapy and other services. 

“In five to ten years, mental healthcare is going to look radically different. Instead of being a guessing game of trial-and-error, mental healthcare will be precisely and accurately tailored to each individual through data,” said founder April Koh.  

“I started Spring Health because I wanted to build that future — where the hopelessness of guessing is replaced with the hope of data-driven, accurate care.”

Real

For maximum optionality there’s an app called Real, which offers programming on topics including relationships and body positivity. It allows the user to choose what they want to focus on, and then provides therapist-led pathways towards specific mental health goals, like dealing with anxiety, unlearning certain behaviors, or opening up to new experiences. Each pathway is 12 sessions, and the therapist guides each new session building on the previous one. 

Employees offered an EAP were 34% more likely to say their mental health has improved.

There’s no shortcut here. But according to data from MetLife, employees offered an EAP—counseling, referrals, assessments, or check-ins for people struggling with substance abuse, stress, grief, intimate partner violence, etc.—were 34% more likely to say their mental health has improved in the last 12 months. 

We’ve all heard a lot of talk about how important mental health is, especially after the collective trauma of the pandemic. But the evidence suggests it’s time for a new model. 

Maybe it’s time to ask employees what they really want. Or just let them decide on their own.

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