Connie Chen, MD, leads product, clinical operations, and research as the COO at Lyra Health, a leader in global workforce mental health.
At my primary care clinic, I had a patient come in complaining of debilitating stomach pain. I saw the young woman monthly for about a year, in 15-minute increments because that’s all we could manage in our overrun practice. She had previously been in a serious car accident. We did multiple scans, scopes and other diagnostics, but couldn’t find a physical cause for her pain.
As I got to know her better, she opened up about her financial stress and PTSD from the incident, and we realized we needed to try a different path. While we faced painful delays in finding her a therapist, once she finally started receiving treatment for her mental health, her pain and overall health improved considerably. She was once again able to feel fully present in her life and work without having to take time from her day for repeated medical appointments.
I saw this story play out again and again as a physician, regardless of the setting—my primary care clinic, the emergency room or the ICU. Mental health is manifestly intertwined with physical health. And of course, our health affects how we show up for ourselves and others. This is why I believe it’s crucial for employers to consider health holistically and account for mental health in the health care benefits they offer employees—and there’s a tangible return on investment if they do.
Mental Health Is Health
In my experience, the traditional medical system in the United States limits the amount of time doctors get to spend with patients and arbitrarily disconnects physical health care from mental health care, despite study after study validating the link. People with severe mental disorders, like psychotic disorders, bipolar and moderate to severe depression, die an average of 10-20 years earlier than the general population. This is largely due to preventable physical illness, such as heart disease, infections and respiratory disease. And studies have shown that chronic physical conditions can also benefit from mental health treatment.
Poor physical health affects your mental health and poor mental health affects your physical health—and symptoms of one can often mask or mimic symptoms of the other. The associations between the two get even more complicated. Having less access to care, not having the emotional capacity to seek out care, health care systems dismissing physical symptoms due to existing behavioral symptoms, impacts of lifestyle, economic factors and genetics all contribute to higher costs and poorer outcomes.
Amidst the complicated interplay of factors, there is one thing we have discovered for sure: Investing in high quality mental health care significantly reduces spend and improves outcomes for physical health.
This is more important than ever in a year where employers are likely to see the steepest increase in insurance premiums in a decade—about 6.5% (paywall). When mental health issues go under-treated, it can have devastating and compounding consequences for individuals, employers and an overburdened health care system.
Third-party studies have found that companies that invest in a high-quality mental health care solution for their employees see a roughly $2,300 per person savings in health plan spend, a 15%–27% reduction in presenteeism, and two times higher employee retention. That kind of ROI on any physical health intervention across a population is unheard of in my experience.
Holistic Health Approach
This is why a holistic health approach is so important. Here are a few tips for employers looking to take a more whole-person approach to care:
Make mental health a cornerstone benefit.
High-quality, evidence-based mental health care can support improvements in physical health. Putting a stake in the ground that your organization supports mental health and sees it as a worthwhile investment can help reduce stigma and make employees feel more empowered to seek care.
Overcommunicate the benefits you have.
Many organizations have complicated benefits systems and disparate point solutions that employees don’t fully understand, know about or use. The more employers can communicate about available benefits, in different forms and media, the more likely employees are to make the most of them.
Understand the interplay of multiple factors.
In addition to physical health, mental health is closely linked with financial stability, social well-being and other life factors. Treating benefits as a cohesive offering can help lower health care costs, increase productivity and decrease disability costs.
Make sure your benefits work together.
Creating an integrated benefits system means having partners that can talk to one another and intelligently surface other benefits that may be useful to employees. For example, if someone seeking mental health care is struggling due to infertility issues, the system could recommend an employer-sponsored fertility benefit, if available.
Both the World Health Organization and the Biden administration have recognized the inseparable nature of mental and physical health and encouraged policy changes to reduce disparities and stigma that prevent people from getting the life-saving treatment they need.
Changing our mindsets around what an investment in mental health means at both the individual and societal level has only upside. More people will get the treatment they actually need, and employers and insurance companies can spend far less to help them live their healthiest, most fulfilling lives.