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More Employers Offering Wellness, Mental Health Chatbots

As a record amount of U.S. workers struggle with mental health issues and stress, more employers are offering new chatbot apps to help them.

A survey this past summer of 457 employers by Willis Towers Watson found that 24% of them offer a “digital therapeutic” for mental health support.

Some 15% of the businesses surveyed were considering adding this type of offering in 2024 or 2025, the professional services company found. Typically, these apps are provided as a voluntary or wellness benefit.

Some apps feature chatbots that can hold counseling-type conversations with users, while other wellness apps can help diagnose depression or identify people at risk of harming themselves.

At the same time, these chatbots and other mental health apps have generated controversy, with some experts warning that they are not equipped to handle serious mental health issues and that they are no replacement for human therapists.

However, as long as there are not enough therapists in the U.S. to meet demand and artificial intelligence continues to evolve, it’s likely these chatbots are here to stay.

Examples

Recently Amazon announced that as part of its employee benefits package it would offer the therapist-like app Twill. The platform says that Taylor, its clinician-trained chatbot, “learns, interprets and understands each person’s needs and goals to guide them towards personalized care.”

Another product on the market is Wysa, an AI-driven app that received a breakthrough designation by the Federal Drug Administration, putting it on track for fast-track approval. This came after an independent peer-reviewed clinical trial, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, which found the app to be effective in the management of chronic pain, and associated depression and anxiety.

Also on the market is Woebot, which combines exercises for mindfulness and self-care (with answers written by teams of therapists) for postpartum depression. 

Pros and cons

The apps vary in how much they incorporate AI — and in how much leeway they give AI systems. These companies say they build safeguards into their apps and that they have certified psychiatrists that oversee the applications.

Proponents of mental health apps and chatbots say they can address issues like anxiety, loneliness and depression. Also, chatbots and apps can provide 24-hour support and they can meet the demand of people who may have a hard time finding a counselor or fitting therapy into their schedule.

On the other hand, there is a paucity of data or research showing how effective, or how safe, they are — and the majority have not been approved by the FDA.

Many of these mental health apps have different specialties, for example: treating anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or depression. Others can help diagnose mental health problems or predict issues that can lead to self-harm.

Often, the apps will include disclaimers that they are “not intended to be a medical, behavioral health or other health care service” or “not an FDA-cleared product.”

Also, there have been concerns raised about some of these apps. In March 2023, the Federal Trade Commission reached an $8 million settlement with BetterHelp, an app counseling service, over allegations that it shared user data with advertising partners.

Another company, Replika, updated its app last year after users complained that its chatbot engaged in overly sexual conversations, and even harassed them.

The takeaway

Mental health care is an increasingly important part of employee benefits offerings. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 94% of employers have made investments in mental health care, according to research by Mercer.

As these apps improve and become more widespread, it’s likely your employees will encounter them when they use their group benefits, or they will be among your voluntary benefit offerings.

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New Mental Health Parity Rules Would Expand Care

With mental health in the forefront as patients demand greater access to psychologists and psychiatrists, the Biden administration in July 2023 proposed new regulations aimed at requiring health insurers to expand their mental health coverage.

The proposal aims to bring insurers into compliance with existing law requiring that they cover mental health benefits in parity with physical health services.

Despite that law, many insured Americans struggle to access mental health care, often because they need a referral or a health plan does not have enough psychologists and psychiatrists in its network, forcing them to go to providers outside of the network and paying significantly more.

It’s hoped that by adding new provisions that would require insurers to regularly assess how well they are complying with the law, it will be easier to receive in-network mental health care. Additionally, the rules aim to eliminate barriers that keep people from accessing such care when they need it.

The Mental Health Parity and Equity Act has been on the books since 2007, but the COVID-19 pandemic provided the spark that ignited a brewing mental health crisis in the country. The sudden demand for counseling services caught insurers off guard with too few providers in their networks.

As well, many people who needed mental health services were unable to get them due to their insurers’ sometimes onerous prior authorization requirements. In announcing the rule, the administration cited an example of insurers approving nutritional counseling for diabetes patients, but not for people with eating disorders.

The regulations — proposed by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury — would:

Require health plans to measure outcomes to make improvements. The rules require insurers to regularly analyze their coverage requirements to make sure their insureds have equivalent access between their mental health and medical benefits as required by law. The insurer will need to evaluate:

  • How much it pays out-of-network providers,
  • How often prior authorization is required, and
  • The rate of denials for prior authorization requests.

The goal is to help insurers identify areas where they are failing to meet the law’s requirements and require that they take steps to remedy those shortfalls, such as adding more mental health professionals to their networks or reducing red tape to get access to them.

Stipulate what health plans can and cannot do. The proposed rules will provide specific examples that make clear that health plans cannot use more restrictive prior authorization, other medical management techniques, or narrower networks that make it harder for people to access mental health and substance use disorder benefits than physical medical benefits.

The proposal would require health plans to use similar factors in setting out-of-network payment rates for mental health and substance use disorder providers as they do for medical providers.

The takeaway

The proposed rule is good news for any of your staff that have been having a hard time accessing mental health or substance abuse services.

The regulators are hoping that the legislation achieves their goals of:

  • Making mental health care accessible to more people,
  • Ensuring that mental health professionals’ pay is comparable to that of physical medicine practitioners, and
  • By ensuring comparable pay and boosting demand, attracting more individuals to pursue careers in mental health professions to increase the number of mental health providers.

The proposed regulations still need to be put out for public comment and will likely be changed as the agencies get to work writing the final version.

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Employers Focus on Cost Containment, Mental Health and Telemedicine

A new survey has found that managing health care costs and expanding mental health benefits will be a top priority for U.S. employers as they ramp up benefits to compete for talent in the tight job market spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, virtual care is expected to become an essential and long-lasting feature of employers’ health insurance and employee benefits strategies over the next few years, according to the “2022 Emerging Trends in Healthcare Survey” by Wills Towers Watson.

The focus on health care and insurance costs, mental health and expanded telehealth comes as employers continue pulling out all the stops to compete in a tight job market but face health care inflation headwinds.

Here’s the direction many employers are going, according to the survey.

Dealing with rising costs

In light of continuing rising health insurance costs, 94% of employers surveyed said they are redoubling their efforts to make benefits more affordable for their workers.

Nearly two-thirds of employers (64%) said they will take steps to address employee health care affordability over the next two years. Steps they are considering include:

  • Improving quality and outcomes to lower overall cost.
  • Adding or enhancing low- or no-cost coverage for certain benefits.
  • Making changes to their employees’ out-of-pocket costs.
  • Increasing the amount they contribute towards their employees’ health insurance premium.

Employers also felt that many of their employees were not getting the most out of their benefits and needed further education on all of their offerings. More than half (54%) said that lack of employee awareness about where to find programs to support their needs was a significant challenge.

Mental health

Eighty-seven percent of employers said that enhancing mental health benefits will be a priority for them.

That’s in response to numerous studies and reports indicating that the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a mental health crisis.

Another poll — the “Workforce Attitudes Toward Mental Health” report — by Headspace Health illustrates the depths of the problem:

  • 83% of CEOs and 70% of employees report missing at least one day of work because of stress, burnout and mental health challenges.
  • Only 28% of employees report feeling “very engaged” in their work.
  • Top global stressors for employees are COVID-19; burnout because of increased workload or lack of staff; poor work-life balance; and poor management and leadership.
  • 40% of women and 33% of men surveyed said they feel burned out at work.
  • Remote workers are feeling increasingly isolated.

In response to this, 66% of employers surveyed by Willis Towers Watson said that ensuring that their health and well-being programs support remote workers will be a key priority of their strategy over the next two years. More than six in 10 employers plan to enhance programs and well-being activities to focus on health issues of their employees’ family members.

Virtual care

Use of virtual care — or telemedicine — has exploded during the pandemic, particularly in 2020 and 2021, when many people were afraid to go to the doctor in person for fear of contracting COVID-19.

Additionally, many health care providers pushed virtual care to avoid having too many people come to medical facilities that were burdened by an avalanche of patients.

Congress passed laws allowing health insurers to cover telemedicine as they would other visits to a doctor. And now telemedicine is poised to be a permanent fixture of employers’ health care strategies.

Willis Towers Watson found that by the end of 2023:

  • 95% of employers expect to offer virtual care for medical and behavioral health issues,
  • 61% of employers expect to offer lower cost-sharing for virtual care,
  • 53% of employers expect the expansion of telemedicine to help decrease costs in the long run, and
  • 50% believe virtual care will improve health outcomes for their employees.

Fortunately for employers, a number of companies have cropped up during the last few years that focus on delivering state-of-the art telemedicine platforms.

The takeaway

The pandemic has spurred many employers to prioritize their employees’ well-being, as well as look for ways to manage costs.

With competition for employees fierce, many employers are focused on reducing their staff’s share of costs, while also expanding mental health services in response to growing demand.

Meanwhile, telemedicine services are still evolving, a trend that’s likely to continue for the foreseeable future as health care providers, insurers and employers see it as a way to rein in some costs.

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Health Expenses a Major Source of Mental Health Issues for U.S. Workers

A new study has found that more than one in four U.S. workers say expensive medical bills are having a major impact on their mental health.

Mental health issues have come to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic, spurring employers to expect their group health plans to do more for their workers in this area.

The report on the study by the health care consulting company Centivo urges employers to consider new ways to reduce the medical financial burden some of their employees may be experiencing.

Mental health is already on the radar of employers:

  • Large businesses reported that addressing their workers’ mental and emotional health would be a top priority over the next three to five years, according to a 2021 study by Mercer Consulting.
  • Nearly 40% of employers surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation in November 2021 said that they had made changes to their mental health and substance abuse benefits since the pandemic started.

The Centivo report found that:

  • S. workers are increasingly having difficulties in paying for health care, particularly due to high copays, deductibles and other health plan cost-sharing elements.
  • Health care affordability also correlates to sacrifices in care, including mental health care. Twenty percent of study participants who experienced major medical expenses said they skipped or delayed needed mental health care or counseling due to cost concerns.
  • Medical expenses are a significant cause of mental health and well-being issues for both individuals and families.

Stress drivers

The report states that the findings raise concerns about whether some employees can even afford to use their health plans. It stressed two main points:

High deductibles — The report found one of the main drivers of stress was high deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs.

It found that only 10% of those surveyed had a health plan with a zero deductible.

More troubling was that 40% of those with deductibles ranging from $1,000 to $3,999 did not have enough money saved to cover a major medical expense.

Savings trumps more features — The study found that group health plan enrollees’ top priority in their health plans is to save money, both on the front end in premiums as well as the back end in out-of-pocket costs.

Respondents said they would take saving money over expanded features, even if they had fewer choices in their health care. In fact, nearly three out of four respondents said they would trade off being able to see their current provider or specialist for a plan that is 10 to 30% less expensive than their current one.

The takeaway

One interesting finding in the study was the less that employees saved for health care, the more likely they were to report that a major medical expense had affected their mental health. Only those that reported more than $10,000 in savings reported low levels of mental health issues.

That highlights the need for employees to set aside funds for health care expenses through health savings accounts, flexible spending accounts and health reimbursement accounts. These are funded with deductions from the employees’ salaries before taxes are taken out.

Centivo’s chief medical officer, Dr. Wayne Jenkins, said that employers can help their workers reduce their overall medical outlays by working with their employee benefits brokers to:

  • Eliminate or reduce deductibles,
  • Engage with health insurers to provide simple and predictable copays, and
  • Make primary care visits free (which helps physicians diagnose serious ailments earlier, resulting in lower medical costs over time).

Also, businesses may consider “skinny plans,” which typically have fewer provider choices in exchange for lower premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

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Pandemic Fallout: Employers Boost Mental Health, Substance Abuse Benefits

The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound effects on health insurance in the U.S., with many employers improving mental health and other benefits to help their workers during this trying period, according to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the proportion of employers that offer their staff health coverage has remained steady, while health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expense increases have remained moderate, according to KFF’s “2021 Employer Health Benefits Survey.”

With the stress of the pandemic weighing on workers in all industries, as well as the effects on their families and society from lockdowns and other changes brought on by COVID-19, many Americans have been struggling with mental health as well as substance abuse.

Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics indicate that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States during the 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5% from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before.

Besides drugs, alcohol abuse has also skyrocketed during the pandemic, according to the CDC.

Another report by the CDC found that 40% of U.S. adults had reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse:

  • 31% reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.
  • 26% reported symptoms of trauma/stressor-related disorder.
  • 13% started or increased substance abuse.
  • 11% reported seriously considering suicide.

It’s no surprise then that since the pandemic started, 39% of employers surveyed said they’d boosted their benefits covering these issues.

Of those that made changes:

  • 31% increased the ways employees can access mental health services, such as telemedicine.
  • 58% of employers with 200 or more employees and 38% of those with 50 to 199 employees expanded online counseling services.
  • 16% started offering employee assistance programs or other new resources for mental health.
  • 6% expanded access to in-network mental health providers.
  • 4% reduced cost-sharing for such visits.
  • 3% increased coverage for out-of-network services.

How did employers act? For example, after the pandemic hit, Rhode Island-based Thundermist Health Center’s employee health plan reduced the copayments for behavioral health visits to zero from $30.

As to employees, they responded by taking advantage of the new and expanded services:

  • 38% of large companies (1,000 or more workers) said their workers had used more mental health services in 2021 than the year before.
  • 12% of companies with at least 50 employees said their workers had increased their use of mental health services.

What you can do

With so many people suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues that may have been exacerbated by or are a direct result of the pandemic, it’s certain that most employers have staff who are struggling.

Talk to us about what your current plan choices offer in terms of substance abuse and mental health counseling benefits. Many insurers, in response to rising demand, have been increasing access to these treatments.

If you do not have one, you may also consider an employee assistance program, which will provide a set amount of counseling appointments as well as substance abuse treatment to complement your health plan.

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Healthcare

More Employers Expand Mental Health Benefits

American workers are more stressed than ever, and an increasing number of people are also struggling with mental health issues. 

Sadly, the number of people dying from drugs, alcohol and suicide hit record levels in 2019. 

When someone is battling addiction or has mental health issues, it affects all aspects of their life, including work. Stress can have a significant adverse impact on business. It costs employers an average of $300 billion a year in stress-related health care and missed work, according to a Harris Poll conducted for Purchasing Power.

That’s why more employers are stepping up to provide their workers with benefits to support behavioral health and emotional well-being. 

Employee assistance programs

One of the most common ways that businesses have offered support is through employer-paid employee assistance programs (EAPs), which offer a set amount of free mental health services sessions, typically topping out at five to eight per year. But for many people who are experiencing mental health issues, this may not be enough.

Some larger employers have started offering mental health benefits that cover a higher number of therapy sessions and a wider range of treatment options, including therapy and mental health coaching. 

Additionally, studies have found that offering a mix of online services such as digital lessons and in-person or virtual therapy can lead to lower therapy dropout rates, plus higher rates of abstinence for clients with substance abuse issues.

As a result, some employers are offering programs that cover a spectrum of behavioral health care options, such as:

  • Self-care apps for employees experiencing occasional stress
  • In-person therapy sessions
  • Virtual therapy sessions 
  • Prescription medication to treat common, diagnosable conditions such as anxiety or depression. 

Companies usually offer EAPs at no cost to their employees. Most employers operate their EAP through a third party administrator, which can be crucial to the success of your EAP.

Employees have to feel comfortable discussing professional and personal problems with the EAP administrator, and if your business administers your EAP, it could prevent employees from coming forward and asking for the help they require. 

That said, it’s up to you to make sure your staff understands that they can talk about mental health without fear of it affecting their jobs. You should train management and supervisors on the importance of confidentiality and job protection if one of your staff asks for assistance or raises mental health concerns. 

Don’t forget your health insurance

There is an extensive list of mental health services your health plan should provide your staff. These services include outpatient and inpatient treatment, telemedicine, medication and counseling. Each of these attributes can be vital for treating mental illnesses.

Of course, there will likely be some out-of-pocket costs for your employees that use these services under their group health plans. 

One service that is growing and improving success rates is the continuing evolution of telemedicine. According to the benefits news site BenefitsPro, telemedicine can make getting care anonymous and convenient, so patients can receive it where they’re most comfortable. This is especially valuable when dealing with the sensitive matter of mental health.

Other options

American workers are more stressed than ever, and some may not need counseling services from an EAP to reduce their life stress. Besides offering an EAP, there are other benefits that you can extend to your workers that can help them better deal with the ordeals of life and work, including: 

Parental leave — Becoming a new parent is extremely stressful. If you don’t offer parental leave, and instead require parents to take unpaid time off, such as under the Family and Medical Leave Act, this stress is compounded. Paternal leave is paid time off for new parents, either mom or dad, after the birth or adoption of a child. It gives parents the opportunity to take care of their new child without the stress of work getting in the way. 

The benefit to the employer is that when the worker returns from their leave, they are more productive, sooner. Consider offering this to both male and female employees. 

Paid time off — PTO combines sick leave and vacation time. It gives employees a set bank of time off at the beginning of each year. Employees can then choose whenever and however they want to use this time off. 

Flexible work — Flexible work is a great way to help employees with mental health issues. This benefit can include flexible hours (selecting hours they will work), flexible schedule (selecting when they work) and flexible location (like telecommuting).