More than 217 million workdays are completely or partially lost among workers age 18 to 54 in the United States due to mental disorders. This costs your clients $17 billion dollars a year, according to Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group. In an effort to avert turnover, lost productivity, medical costs and increased absenteeism, employee assistance programs help employees struggling with personal issues through in-house counseling or off-site referrals.

While EAPs are good in theory, the hardest part of the equation is getting employees to take advantage of the programs, either because of the stigma associated with mental health issues, the discomfort of face-to-face meetings with a counselor, or the lack of awareness that services even exist. As a result, businesses are more reluctant to invest in EAPs because of uncertainty in their return on investment.

If the focus of EAPs shifts from addressing "mental health" issues to "brain health and wellness," the appeal and potential engagement of employees broadens. Now the EAP is positioned to serve both those who want to increase their well-being as well as those who have specific behavioral health needs. By training their brains to better handle the everyday stress of life, employees can carry these well-being best practices for managing life stress into both their workplace role and personal life.


What can be done?

There are strong linkages between brain health and overall health and well-being. Numerous studies suggest that brain training can improve processing deficits associated with mental health conditions by helping people regulate their emotions, thoughts and feelings.

With insights from neuroscience research that the brain interprets any change as a threat and that it is important to learn by "doing," a brain health complement to a wellness program can help facilitate a readiness for change. Employees can learn and develop new habits that may help them overcome their challenges through regular participation in exercises designed to improve brain health. Learning from mistakes, overcoming impulses, tuning into positives, managing stress and increasing focus are all benefits of brain training.

Aetna now offers a brain health and wellness behavioral benefit designed to help employers improve productivity, health and well-being of their workforce. As one of the first major providers to integrate brain training into its EAP offerings, this underscores a deep understanding from a major insurer of how good brain health is key to a greater overall state of wellness.

Also, earlier this year, another well-known insurance company implemented a brain health and wellness program internally and saw positive results, including an 8% improvement in presenteeism and a 5% reduction in absenteeism after participants followed the program for 30 days.

The company also reported a 5% increase in positivity and an 8% increase in social skills. Furthermore (and most important for tipping the scales in employee utilization of EAP benefits), 85% were planning to take additional steps to improve their health after using the brain training tools.


Stress in the workplace

In any workplace environment, a certain amount of stress is going to be inevitable. Everyone has responsibilities, supervisors, deadlines and co-workers to deal with. But, too much stress or prolonged periods of stress can be bad for one's overall health, including developing chronic illnesses .

For workers in high-stress jobs at the insurance company cited, the number of visits to health care professionals was up to 26% higher than for workers in the low-stress job category. Stressed-out workers are increasingly turning to health professionals for physical, mental and emotional issues. This is costing employers millions.

Brain training can help employees deal with the number of stressors in their lives, improve their overall health and help them to better understand how to cope. This will not only help employees to be more effective in the workplace, but also reduce health care costs, increase productivity, and reduce absenteeism and turnover.

Interactive brain-training websites that bring together games, videos and personal achievement trackers help employees take charge of their own well-being. Training to have a positive outlook can help employees deal with stress more effectively, which can build resilience and may also lead to personal success. Although many recognize that stress can have an impact on their health and well-being, they don't always take action. Targeting a de-stigmatization of mental health by focusing on brain health and wellness can be the gateway to increased EAP utilization.

Phillips, PhD, is director of research solutions for Brain Resource, a San Francisco-based company that researches, develops and distributes products to strengthen the brain.

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