Culture   //   May 12, 2022  ■  4 min read

Transforming mental health therapy from a privilege to a commodity

“Don’t you think it’s a privilege to be able to deal with stress and burnout — or even know it’s an issue?”

The question surprised Bex Spiller, founder of mental health platform The Anti-Burnout Club, when it was posed by an audience member at her TedX talk in February. It’s one that she initially took personally, but came to realize it was right to ask and consider.

“It is a privilege to have the education, resources, time and money to recognize mental health issues and deal with them,” Spiller told WorkLife, after reflection. “Telling someone to exercise, meditate, go to therapy, and all the rest, is the go-to for better mental health, but when someone is working long hours, then having to deal with home life or whatever else they have going on, it feels impossible.”

There’s also the cost factor.

“Therapy is likely to be at the bottom of your priorities when you’ve got an extortionate electric bill to pay,” Spiller said.

The link between privilege and mental health treatment is particularly pertinent in light of the growing movement to both destigmatize mental health issues and normalize seeking therapy, prompting senior business leaders to take to social media with their mental health and therapy journeys.

It’s something to be applauded, Spiller acknowledged. But it can seem tone-deaf, when so many more junior executives are facing mental health challenges, but don’t have the finances or access to the relevant services. And employers fall short of providing therapy in their highly publicized well-being offerings, as recent survey findings reveal.

A total 41% of U.S. workers say their employer doesn’t offer any mental health support, according to jobs site FlexJobs, despite a third reporting their mental health has declined over the past year. For 22%, a lack of mental health support at work is a top factor for resigning.

Spiller argues that companies will only be most effective when partnered with an official therapy service despite a rising trend for companies to incorporate well-being platforms into their HR offerings.

“Some of the well-being benefits offered by businesses are often just a sticking plaster. While it can be expensive for businesses to implement; stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 17.9 million working days lost in 2019/2020 in the U.K. The ROI on providing proper therapy for employees is absolutely worth it,” said Spiller.

VideoAmp, a Los Angeles-headquartered advertising measurement company, can attest to that, after rolling out a free therapy service to its 400-strong workforce in 2020.

The benefit — available to dependents too — includes three video coaching sessions, three in-person or video therapy sessions, and 24/7 unlimited text message support from coaches. Employees can then opt to pay for further sessions. So far, 177 employees have signed up. The company has since seen a 15% lift in employee “rest and recovery scores” in its regular engagement survey.

Senior product manager Catherine Chilton and account executive Nina Ganelin are two VideAmp employees who have benefited from employer-sponsored therapy. Chilton was experiencing grief but would not have prioritized finding support due to financial reasons.

“If I didn’t have this free service available via work, I probably would not have sought out help. Having access to free therapy benefits people like me who don’t have an existing relationship with a therapist and probably would not make it a financial priority before realizing how valuable it is. Without this, I would have a significantly more difficult time processing my grief,” relayed Chilton.

Meanwhile for Ganelin, feeling stressed and overwhelmed with family in conflict-stricken Ukraine, affordability was less of an issue over accessibility and time.

“Affordability is not the key roadblock for me, but rather the difficulty of finding a therapist that is a good fit, figuring out scheduling and waiting long periods of time between appointments based on the therapist’s availability and starting the process all over again if that person is not the best match. Our work platform makes the entire process much more efficient, increasing the chances of me taking advantage of the benefit and improving my life,” Ganelin explained.

But how can employers protect themselves when it comes to taking responsibility for the mental health of their entire workforce? That’s where third-party platform partnerships continue to add value, said Marisa Peters, VideoAmp’s chief people officer.

“Investing in third-party platforms like Modern Health removes the legal and confidential burdens from the employer, while still allowing team members to get the support they need most directly from the experts,” said Peters.

Spiller agrees, pointing to the boundaries set out by employee counseling provider Spill (not affiliated with Spiller). These state that the platform shouldn’t be used as a crisis service and that it isn’t a replacement for medical treatment. While sessions offer guidance and support, counselors don’t prescribe advice but encourage patients to find their own answers. 

Such clarity is essential for facilitating the ease of employer-sponsored therapy, and it’s this ease, as well as the financial offset, which takes out the privilege element, democratizing mental health treatment for employees at all levels — not just those in the C-suite with the budget and power to improve their own lives.