Measuring mental health intervention ROI

Talking about new attitudes to mental health may feel the right thing to do, but there needs to be hard numbers on return on investment

We’ve reached the stage where depression and anxiety are talked about in the open rather than dealt with behind closed doors in hushed meetings, as something embarrassing, or an admission of personal weakness. People are more able to be people, not forced to adopt a rigid employee persona.

This year’s World Mental Health Day felt more relevant and more focused on practical interventions than ever. The global summit and package of UK government measures has demonstrated the new willingness to tackle mental health head-on and to pay more attention to the specifics.

According to the government's Thriving at Work: a review of mental health and employers report in October 2017 poor mental health among employees is costing employers between £33 billion and £42 billion. UK employers bear much of the burden of the costs of ill-health in general, and HR needs to have a better grasp of which particular interventions help mitigate these costs.

Talking about new attitudes to mental health, providing yoga sessions and free fruit may feel the right thing to do, but there needs to be hard numbers on return on investment. HR approaches to mental health in this new context are looking increasingly woolly.

There’s been a trickle of research into the ROI of workplace health interventions over the past 30 years. But much of it originates in the US where employers bear significant healthcare costs and have a direct financial interest in improving workforce health and promoting early intervention, and this is often carried out by the health providers themselves. The more reliable research includes a study by large US insurance firm LifeSolutions, which found a return of between $5.17 and $6.47 (in terms of increased work productivity) for each dollar spent on an EAP.

An academic study involving work with the Australian Fire Service found that mental health training for managers led to real impact on work-related absence and an ROI of £9.98 for each pound spent. The government’s Thriving at Work highlighted a significant return for employers investing in mental health interventions: an average of £4.20 for every £1 spent (with a range up to £9).

EAPs are the most commonly-used workforce health intervention in the UK with close to half of the workforce (almost 14 million) having access. It’s an increase of 300% in just over a decade. And the use of EAPs is at the heart of the mental health question; a central resource for support on the range of issues that unsettle and undermine employees and their performance. But despite their popularity and the faith employers place in them, very few providers are able to collect systematic evaluation data beyond utilisation statistics and satisfaction surveys.

EAPA has been working with the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) to change this picture; to develop a simple tool that can be used by HR professionals to estimate the impact of EAPs on workplace outcomes. For the first time EAP providers and employers will be able to demonstrate the value of their EAPs, using the results to better inform their health and wellbeing strategy and deliver more tailored support to employees.

The more the calculator is used, the richer the dataset becomes. In turn this data can be used to revise and update the methodology, building the rigour and realism of the figures put forward to senior executives in boardrooms. There’s then a clear basis for investment in more specific mental health initiatives for employees. As the UK dataset grows and anonymous data is collated and analysed it will provide the detail needed for organisations and HR teams to benchmark returns and value against comparative employers in their sector and region.

Neil Mountford is chair of Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA)