Digital mental health tools have been growing in popularity, especially as plans and organizations navigate lockdowns and remote work arrangements that have kept employees apart during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these tools deliver mental health resources, programs and education through self-service access, but a notable gap has been how to address the increasing risk of social isolation and loneliness among employees who are in need of human connections.
The July/August issue of Plans & Trusts featured a conversation with Bill Howatt, Ph.D., founder and chief executive officer of Howatt HR, and Shandy McLean, vice president at Arete. Howatt and McLean provide insights into how organizations can use tools like apps to help employees build connections and better address their mental health needs.
Today’s Mental Health Needs
For years, organizations have been putting money toward helping employees gain more access to mental health supports. These investments have become even more critical in light of the pandemic.
“COVID has shined a light on humans having a breaking point,” Howatt said. “Mental illness was a major challenge before COVID and will increase incrementally over the next five to ten years as the fallout from the pandemic settles in. The greatest need is for strategic investments into mental health prevention to improve employees’ mental fitness.”
Howatt points out that mental fitness is not a one-and-done approach. Instead, employers should focus efforts on continuous improvement and evidence-based outcomes.
The Use of Mental Health Apps
Digital tools have become an important component of mental health supports, McLean said. When joined with other proven aspects of prevention and treatment, apps can help individuals learn independently, build social connections and access professional therapy. However, it’s important to remember that individuals are unique in their needs and comfort with technology.
“A single app or website shouldn’t be seen as a complete solution to these complex challenges,” she said. “Instead, it should be embedded as part of a comprehensive mental health strategy.”
For a mental health app to be most effective, employers must first understand potential problems among their employees.
“One growing challenge that employers need to solve is the unintended consequences of having a large number of employees working remotely most of the time, making it difficult for them to build psychologically safe relationships in the workplace,” Howatt said. “An app that assists employees with understanding how to build and maintain social connections can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, reducing risks to mental health.”
Challenges of Access and Usage
“Employers must understand that an app is not a magic pill,” Howatt said. “Employees still need to do something. My recommendation is to consider blended learning options.”
As an example, he suggests including apps as part of a targeted eight-week course that has employees interacting with a course facilitator who can frame the idea of using the app as a monitoring and discovery tool between sessions and as a continuing resource after the course.
“Technology is wonderful, but we must remember that humans need humans,” Howatt said. “Research suggests that blending technology with human interaction increases retention, learning and impact.”
Customizing Apps to Employee Needs
McLean recommends using mental health apps that can be customized for plan members, including tailored utilization reports, in-app educational content for specific audiences or digital touchpoints that can connect members to other plan benefits. Deciding on a customizable app should be a thorough, collaborative effort.
“The decision-making process should include a review of evidence, engagement with the new audience to understand their lived experiences and needs, and the development of a new research framework to guide its implementation and evaluation,” McLean said.
For next steps, McLean said to consider how your organization can stand out in a marketplace filled with a variety of mental health apps. “While competitive pricing is always important, consider how a carefully designed mental health strategy that uniquely addresses new or emerging risks to mental health can position your organization as an attractive leader in this space.”
Mental well-being has a significant impact throughout the U.S. and Canada and, in turn, throughout our workplaces and on employee benefit plans. The International Foundation Workplace Mental Health Resources page provides a number of resources designed to help support the mental health of your organization/the plans you serve.
- The True Value of Empathetic Leadership
- What to Consider When Choosing a Mental Health Benefits Strategy
Robbie Hartman, CEBS
Editor, Publications, for the International Foundation
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