The Affordable Care Act has expanded the coverage that employers must provide for mental health services. Mental health is now one of 10 categories that are labeled Essential Health Benefits and therefore must be part of any employer-offered health insurance plans, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

As shown by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 18.8 million American adults will suffer from a depressive illness in a given year. Depression can cause 200 million lost workdays each year at a cost to employers of $17–44 million. The CDC recommends that employers make their employees aware that they have access to confidential employee-assistance programs and mental health benefits through their health insurance plans. There are some specific actions you can take to ensure that your employees know what benefits are available.

Talk to Your Employees

The employer’s role is to educate their work force about the mental health benefits available on their health insurance plans and to provide support for employees who utilize these benefits. HIPAA rules govern how a health insurance plan discloses health information to an employer, so you will have no direct information concerning any claims made by your employees. This applies to you even if your health plan is self funded.

Although you can’t ask employees about their mental health, you can provide information about services and benefits. A safe way to do this is to provide the information during an all-company meeting in which you discuss several types of services that employees have available. There may be instances in which you decide to speak directly to a certain employee whose performance is suffering or who seems to be having troubles. In these instances, it’s best to tread very carefully. Avoid anything that can make the employee feel defensive. Instead, simply explain that mental health benefits are available for anyone who wants to use them. You may find it best to send a group email or ensure that brochures are available in the break room so that the employee does not feel singled out. Remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents you from asking questions about mental health that may create a perceived disability. HIPAA rules also prevent you from speaking with or asking information from medical personnel.

Establish an Employee Assistance Program

An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a worksite-based program with resources that benefit both employers and employees, as detailed by the U.S. Department of Labor. This type of program is set up by the employer as a supplementary benefit to provide guidance and resources to employees. Generally, the EAP includes a free phone line that employees can call to get help in certain areas, including referrals to mental health professionals, drug- and alcohol-related programs and caregivers for children or the elderly. Many EAPs include a 24-hour nurse line that employees should call to get advice about a medical problem and whether it requires an emergency room or urgent care clinic visit. The EAP can also help employees identify and resolve personal problems that affect job performance or that simply affect their lives. Benefits may include a few counseling sessions by trained personnel or a referral to another counselor.

Employee awareness of an EAP can start with general information during benefit meetings but can also include printed material and notices displayed in communal areas. Since there may be very strong feelings associated with any discussion of mental health, discretion and tact are very important in providing this information.

Creating an environment in which employees understand their mental health benefits and feel comfortable using them can create a smoother, more productive workplace. Maintain an open dialogue with employees regarding benefits available under health insurance plans, and have the information readily available so that employees can reach out in their own way and in their own time.

Mary Parsons is retired from a 30-year career in the insurance industry. She worked in the claims department of a major insurance carrier as a claims adjuster, manager and a member of a catastrophe team. Since her retirement, she has developed a career as a freelance writer. As an insurance professional, she has been a contributor to several insurance websites.