SINGAPORE: Companies that have expanded employee benefits to cover mental health services said the move sends a crucial signal to workers that they take the issue seriously, adding that it makes business sense as well.
Such benefits are among the recommendations issued by a tripartite advisory on Tuesday (Nov 17) promoting mental wellness in the workforce. It comes amid growing attention on the added stress workers may face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For companies with flexible employee benefits (e.g. medical benefits), consider extending the scope of coverage to include mental well-being programmes, mental health consultations and treatments,” the advisory said.
"This signals the company’s desire to support its employees in overcoming their mental health challenges."
It is a sentiment shared by companies who have implemented measures to support their employees' mental well-being.
Calling employee benefits the “most visible” part of a company’s stance, Accenture’s head of human resources for Southeast Asia Grace Yip said: “When a company does make a change in their benefits, it’s a firm and clear signal to the workforce that we take it very seriously.
"It is seen as skin in the game."
The consulting firm incorporated mental health coverage into its employee health benefits in 2018, when it allowed claims for related treatments to be made under its specialist outpatient insurance, but only with a referral letter.
In 2019, it did away with the need for referrals.
The move was a part of larger efforts to promote inclusion within the company, with other initiatives targeting awareness and education about mental health, for example.
“You can put in benefits, but if you’re not changing the other stuff, you’re not moving the needle," Ms Yip told CNA on Wednesday.
“We need to create, in a holistic way, an environment that is safe and encourage people to think about mental well-being and care about others."
The efforts have paid off, according to Accenture. Internal surveys have shown a 75.4 per cent increase in employees who feel safe expressing mental health challenges to their supervisors.
There has also been a “positive response” on assessments of how supported these employees feel, said Ms Yip.
There is also a business case for investing in mental health, said the executive director of the Singapore Human Resources Institute Alvin Aloysius Goh.
“If a staff’s mental well-being is not taken care of, he or she may become less productive or may even result in leaving an organisation and these will impact the company greatly," he said.
“When an organisation looks after its employees, it will reflect positively in their business, hence it is not just if this is a good investment, it is a necessary investment."
COVERING MENTAL ILLNESS LIKE A PHYSICAL ILLNESS
At Otis Elevator Company, while its medical insurance provider does not cover mental health services, employees can tap internal “company self-funded insurance” which was expanded to cover some specialist treatments, including psychological support services.
This is an “intermediary solution” because the goal ultimately is to have external insurance cover mental health services, said Ms Karine Scelles, the firm's executive HR director of Asia-Pacific.
While the company is in talks with its insurer to see what this plan could look like, the main challenge is nailing down a cost.
“The (insurers) will tell you that they are okay to cover mental health, but they’ll have to increase your premium by ‘XYZ’. I understand they also have to look at economics, but it’s creating the wrong discussion,” said Ms Scelles.
“I really think there is something to be done in terms of having this industry consider mental illness like any other physical illness."
She added: “People spend most of their time working and so as an employer, we have a responsibility for people to be in their best condition, perform and feel well.”
BANDING TOGETHER TO FIND SOLUTIONS TO HIGH COSTS
Accenture and Otis Elevator Company are part of the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, a circle that includes top executives from the private and public sector who meet quarterly to discuss inclusive practices.
A subgroup was also set up to deal with the prohibitive costs of improving corporate mental health coverage.
They are working together in the hope of strategising and negotiating with insurers.
“Once you have a certain level of risk-pooling, then the risk management part of it makes it more affordable, like a critical mass kind of thing,” said mental health advocate Anthea Ong, who founded the workgroup.
“The fewer employers who come on board, the more expensive it continues to be, and it’s a chicken and egg situation. There needs to be a collective coordinated effort.”
The former Nominated Member of Parliament added that out of the recommendations by the tripartite advisory, which include organising workshops or training managers to spot distress, insuring mental health is the “biggest and hardest” to do.
“Therefore, I wouldn’t say it should be the first thing on the list firms should do. But it still absolutely deserves our immediate attention to work on it because it will take time, justification, resources and negotiation,” she told CNA.
Ms Ong added that when employers create a safe space for workers to seek help, people will come forward earlier.
“The earlier you seek help, just like any condition, the better your recovery. That helps the company,” she said.