At the 2022 PARMA Annual Conference, a panel discussed the importance of mental health wellness programs for your employees. The speakers included:
- Jena Covy – City of Bakersfield
- Christie Tenter – City of Bakersfield
- Alan Ernst – City of Modesto
- Tina Casola – First Alarm Wellness
Traditional employee wellness programs have always focused on physical health. However, any good wellness program needs to address mental health, as this is an important and neglected component in overall employee health. There are many stressors in everyone’s lives, both from workplace and personal issues. These problems can persist and worsen unless an employee address them.
The types of issues employers face in their mental health wellness program include:
- Interpersonal issues
- Substance misuse
- Anger issues
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Anxiety related to safety and health
- Emotional disconnection
- Empathetic failure
- Avoidance and disassociation
Employers often worry that if they implement a mental health wellness program, it will result in a significant increase in mental injury-related workers’ compensation claims. This point-of-view runs counter to some of the panel’s experiences with their programs. In fact, they noted that having a mental health wellness program likely avoided many workers’ compensation claims by keeping things from escalating.
Police officers and firefighters often face stressful situations on the job and hesitate to seek assistance. Empathy and peer support can be key in setting up a mental health wellness program for these groups. Once employee are aware of these programs and the stigma is removed, many more will utilize the services offered. If you have an EAP program, do your employees understand and utilize the services provided?
When people are treating for a mental health condition, it is just as critical to keep them engaged with the workforce as you do with employees that have a physical injury. The injury and diagnosis should not become their identity. Employees away form work can lose their sense of purpose and doubt their abilities as a productive member of society, especially in police and firefighters. If they feel absent from that community, it leads to increased depression and risk of suicide.
The presumptive laws have altered the landscape in regards to the perception of mental health treatment because employees have an expectation and entitlement to care. This has helped overcome the stigma of mental health, and created opportunities to intervene with wellness programs long before the situation escalates to a claim.
In addressing mental health issues and return to work, employers should review the career path for employees. Are there opportunities for them to move into other departments away from the stressors that are causing them issues? Are there different tasks they can perform that are still meaningful but avoid the stressors? Too often with first responders the assumption is that there are no modified jobs available, but that is often not the case when it comes to mental health situations. Employers wanting to retain good employees need to consider other opportunities for them within the organization.
In order for a program like this to work, there has to be close communication between risk management and human resources, so employees can flow from the wellness program and the EAP into workers’ compensation without loss of continuity of care. The program needs to deliver benefits quickly and confidentially.