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Workers Compensation Issues

State of Mental Health in the Workplace

Mark Walls , Kimberly George | June 11, 2021

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Discussions around the impact of mental health and well-being in the workplace are frequent ​. Out Front Ideas with Kimberly and Mark topics. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we are offering our thoughts on the current state of mental health in the workplace.

Even before the pandemic, benefits managers were evolving employee benefits to equip employees and plan members better with mental health resources. However, as the work from home assignments continued and social isolation set in, employers became even more aware of the impact of mental health and well-being on productivity, absence, and performance. With greater emphasis on employee well-being, we are hopeful that programs initiated during the pandemic will continue to support improved access to care and break down stigma related to mental health.

Employers took advantage of employee resource groups (ERGs), either existing or newly implemented, to foster peer interaction and to open conversation and joint problem-solving related to issues impacting their personal and professional lives because of the pandemic. Group collaborations focused on topics important at that time with employees, homeschool successes, caring for an ill family member, loneliness and depression, challenges with family, and positivity sharing, to name a few. Many found the sessions an excellent way to bring positivity and support into their life and a break from the hectic pace of working at home. As companies create back-to-office and hybrid workforce models, ERGs continue to be a priority to ensure all who want to can participate.

Access to care has been a longstanding challenge for those seeking mental health care. Reimbursement rates, timely appointments, and limited provider options are some of the issues the industry is working to solve. While telehealth visits were growing for triage of minor medical and follow-up appointments, there was a slow adoption of teletherapy and telepsychiatry. Fortunately, telemedicine was a saving grace for many aspects of health care during the pandemic, and mental health saw a boon.

Mental Healthcare Options

Employers and network partners are now offering multiple options for telemedicine and improved coordination between employee assistance programs (EAPs) and online therapy platforms for mental health care. Phone calls, video conferencing, and texting are becoming an integral part of the therapist-patient relationship. With less social connection, this was found successful for many in the workforce and their families. Organizations are now offering various programs, including adult, family, and teen counseling.

The Center for Workplace Mental Health is an important resource for all employers. The entirety of its work focuses on helping employers create a more supportive work environment and advance health policies at their organization. It has created a mental health tool kit for Mental Health Awareness Month, which includes topics such as promoting resiliency for people and the organization, promoting self-care, and addressing isolation and loneliness. These programs and others can be integrated into your company culture to reduce stigma, promote well-being, and provide an environment where employees and leaders equally care and thrive.

The Changing Workplace and Legal Environment

From a workers compensation claims perspective, mental health has always been a lurking complication in the background. The industry tended to largely ignore the issue because of a combination of stigma and outright resistance. Those claims where the injured workers never fully recovered probably have a significant untreated mental health component. Thankfully, that is all changing.

It is now widely recognized that all chronic pain has a significant mental health component, and if you fail to address this, it will increase claims cost and lead to poorer outcomes. Multidisciplinary pain management programs now spend as much time on mental health as they do physical health.

Laws are also changing to make it easier to pursue psychological injuries under workers compensation. More states are allowing "mental-mental" claims, which are psychological injuries with no physical injuries. In addition, one of the leading workers compensation legislative initiatives for several years has been the expansion of first-responder presumption laws, mainly focused on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the past, the threshold for a mental health injury was a "usual and extraordinary" experience. That threshold was used to deny very real traumatic situations that first responders encounter as "usual" aspects of their job.


While these traumatic situations may have been expected, there is nothing ordinary about responding to severe accident scenes, seeing your partner shot, or having someone die in your arms. In ways, public entities created the path to these presumption laws by denying such claims rather than focusing on getting the injured worker the treatment they needed. Public entity employers are now reporting that they are seeing an increasing number of PTSD claims with no corresponding physical injuries being filed under workers compensation insurance.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.