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Mental health-related absence: Trends and predictions

Employee mental health is becoming a greater focus among business leaders as it can significantly impact organizational productivity and performance. Production demands, financial worries and chronic pain — not to mention the uncertainty around COVID-19 — can all lead to stress at the workplace. And it shows, because mental health claims have only continued to skyrocket.

COVID-19’s impact during 2020

Mental health disability claims are often discussed broadly, but the type of claim is key to understanding the trends. Codes for mood disorders, depression and bipolar disorder shifted differently before and during the pandemic than claims for neurotic, anxiety and stress-related disorders. The latter group grew 129.7% between 2019 and 2020 as the pandemic set in. That’s significant, especially compared to the former group, whose claims decreased 24.2% from 2019 to 2020.

It is also important to break down mental health claims by industry, as some industries experienced spikes in claims differently than others. For example, mental health claims by health services workers spiked significantly in April of 2020 as these workers bore the brunt of the frontline pandemic response work. Workers in industries including retail, transportation, communication, power and manufacturing didn’t peak until June of 2020, as the ripple effects of the pandemic hit workers in each industry. In many cases, workers in these industries were responsible for keeping supply chains running and ramping up with consumer demand for online shopping and delivery.

These statistics reflect short-term effects stemming from the onset of the pandemic, where we saw immediate growth in claims. While mental health claims somewhat tapered as 2020 came to a close, we have seen them rise back up in all industries in 2021, matching, or in some cases exceeding, the 2020 peak. As our workplace cultures grow awareness and acceptance of mental health-related issues, workers will continue to build the confidence needed to connect with resources and get help from employers and healthcare providers.

As for COVID long-haulers – people who have recovered from COVID-19 and are experiencing long-term symptoms, which can include mental health symptoms like anxiety and PTSD – it’s too early to tell what the long-term impact on mental health claim volumes will be. Experts and clinicians will need more time to conduct research and collect data on these cases and their associated claims before we can start drawing conclusions. But with roughly 10% of confirmed COVID-positive patients experiencing long-term symptoms, this will be a major focus in the coming year.

Predictions for the remainder of 2021

One detail is clear: mental health-related claims will not fall by the wayside or drop off this year into next year. They were on the rise leading up to 2020 – in fact, it was the fastest-increasing diagnostic group before the pandemic. Post-pandemic peak it’s increasing even faster. Expect to see these mental health claim trends continue for the rest of the year and into 2022, particularly if COVID cases continue to increase as a result of virus variants.

The role of employers

Workplaces must treat mental health the same as any other sickness. Provide resources for employees who claim to have symptoms and take their word. Encouragement for workers to use mental health days, time-off days or other resources must come from managers and senior leaders. For workers who are returning from a mental health-related absence, a supportive culture is important to ensuring a successful reentry. Make sure the returning employee comes back to an environment where their work was handled during the absence, rather than an untenable pile of paperwork or tasks.

If you have questions about the latest mental health claims data or need benefits program suggestions or solutions, our team at Sedgwick is here to help. Visit our website for more information.

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