After news headlines earlier this summer surrounding the high-profile suicides of fashion maven Kate Spade and chef/TV star Anthony Bourdain, some HR executives are reexamining their benefits programs to ensure they offer support for employees who may be considering suicide or experiencing other mental health challenges.

The Spade and Bourdain deaths were notable on their own, however they come at a time when recent news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed suicide rates up by more than 30 percent in half of the states between 1999 and 2016, including about 45,000 instances in 2016 alone. On top of that, more than half (54 percent) of thcredit ose who committed suicide had no known mental health condition.

CDC further warned that more than 1.3 million people reported making a suicide attempt in 2016, while almost 10 million adults had serious thoughts about suicide that year. In addition, suicide and suicide attempts cost about $70 billion annually in combined medical and work loss costs.

So how will corporate America – including a workforce of more than 160 million people – deal with this crisis?

Edward Yost, SHRM
Edward Yost manager, employee relations & development, SHRM

According to Edward Yost, manager of employee relations and development in the HR department at the Society for Human Resource Management, a great number of employers nationwide – including credit unions – have increased their focus on employees’ overall wellness in recent years, including mental health concerns.

A 2017 survey from SHRM indicated almost 80 percent of employers offer Employee Assistance Programs to help employees manage personal problems that can affect a personal well-being and work performance. “Additionally, over 80 percent of employers responding to the survey offer mental health coverage within their medical benefits programs,” Yost added.

Nicole Wilson, vice president of organizational talent services at the $2.3 billion Royal Credit Union of Eau Claire, Wis., told Credit Union Journal many credit unions currently offer EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) that provide the employee and their family with immediate and “confidential support to resolve health and life challenges.”

Yost advised that in order to combat the potentially negative impacts of mental health issues, employers should offer their workers access to resources such as EAPs, as well as health insurance which includes mental health coverage, training for both employees and managers aimed at reducing the stigma associated with mental illness, engagement activities to build a stronger support community at work, access to paid time off, and finally, strong education for employees about the programs that are currently available to them.

Helping staff so they can help members

For credit unions, employees’ mental health is of particular importance.

“I feel credit unions, by nature, are very caring organizations and want to help and provide resources,” noted Royal CU’s Wilson. “So by offering services such as EAPs, it helps get the employee into the proper channels for them to work on their issues. Safety of the employee, confidentiality and being a productive part of the team are common goals for both the employee and the credit union.”

In order to further protect staff, maintaining privacy and confidentiality “builds trust and credibility,” Wilson added, but there is a fine line in balancing this, so open lines of communication with management regarding potential problems is crucial.

Yost conceded that some employees might be reluctant to seek help because of the stigma sometimes attached seeking such services.

“Another reason is that employees have concerns over the confidentiality of such services, especially because they are offered through their employer,” he noted. “Another challenge can be when managers convey negativity around the need to take time off for appointments related to a physical or mental condition.”

In addition, Yost said, some employees may not avail themselves of these services simply because they are not fully aware of what options are available to them since benefits are often only discussed in detail at the time of hiring or during open-enrollment periods, so continued awareness efforts regarding the availability of mental health benefits is critical.

Nicole Wilson, Royal Credit Union
Nicole Wilson, vice president of organizational talent services, Royal Credit Union

“Ultimately we want a healthy workforce, whether that’s mental or physical health,” Wilson said. “Getting the employee the tools and resources they need – through an EAP referral or taking a Medical Leave of Absence – is part of how human resource departments play a vital role. Confidentiality is maintained with these types of programs between the employee and HR.”

Looking at workplace mental health on a global scale, Yost cited a study from the World Health Organization which estimated that depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy upwards of $1 trillion in lost productivity.

“When an employer promotes overall mental health and related programs, it can result in reduced absenteeism, increased productivity and can positively impact an employer’s reputation in a competitive hiring environment,” he added.

But are these services effective? At least one source says they are.

Yost indicated that the research on the effectiveness of EAP programs has been “limited and while considered generally effective, the evidence has been somewhat controversial.” However, he added, according to the U.S. Department of Labor employers generally save anywhere from $5 to $16 for every dollar invested in an EAP program.