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The Importance of Early Intervention in Reducing Absence and Disability Costs

By: Starling Minds

Last updated: August 25, 2021

When an employee goes on absence leave or disability due to an illness or injury, it can have huge impacts on them, their teams, and your organization. 

For organizations, failing to intervene at an early stage can lead to many negative consequences on the business and an employee’s mental and physical health. As a result, their problems often become more serious, more damaging and more difficult to address.

What is Early Intervention?

Early intervention refers to getting help early for people showing early signs and symptoms of a mental health problem. Recent research indicates that early intervention and treatment dramatically impact mental illness and that many people can go on to live normal and productive lives with appropriate treatment. In addition, it can help individuals build resiliency, get better more quickly and prevent problems from becoming worse.

What many HR leaders may not know is the cost of not intervening at a critical point. But what is that critical point? 

Most research and studies have proven that early intervention is the most critical stage where employers should step in and support their employees including:

  1. Unique absences: For employees who miss a few days every other week but not long enough to fulfill the waiting or elimination period in which they need to apply for STD or LTD
  2. Sick Leave: For employees now off work due to being ill or injured
  3. STD: For employees who have exhausted their sick leave plan and are waiting for their STD benefits to be processed

Why is Early Intervention support critical?

Organizations know the importance of prevention in physical illness and how routine checkups and screenings can help employees get help sooner and increase their chances of recovery. Unfortunately, the same principle is not being applied to mental health. Instead, our healthcare systems and workforce policies often focus support for the later stages of mental health or substance use disorders, leading to more costly interventions for the individual and the organization.

The fact is, an organization’s greatest asset isn’t employees but rather healthy employees. According to a national survey, 84 Canadian companies indicated that 52% of employees are experiencing at least one health challenge and, if not addressed, could lead to deeper and more complex issues and impact their productivity and overall health. 

What is the true cost of absence leave for each employee?

According to a Circadian study, “Absenteeism: The Bottom-Line Killer,” unscheduled direct absenteeism costs around $2,650 USD/year or $3,537 CAD/year for each salaried employee who takes 10 days leave of absence —a total of $265 USD/$353.7 CAD a day per employee, or $2.65m USD or $3.537m CAD for an organization with 1,000 employees.

The direct and indirect costs of workplace absenteeism are:

  • Salary and Payroll Costs 
  • Increase in Overtime Costs 
  • Insurance premiums increases 
  • Recruitment and replacement costs 
  • Higher Disability Caseload 

What are the benefits of early intervention?

Benefits of early intervention for someone experiencing a mental illness may include:

  • Fewer and less severe symptoms
  • Lower risk of relapse or suicide
  • Less costly, intensive assessment, treatment or hospitalization needed
  • Reduced team disruptions
  • Longer and fuller recovery and compliance to treatment
  • Increased confidence and motivation

What are the warning signs of declining health?

Early intervention is a smart way for HR leaders to alleviate the organization’s risk associated with over half of their workforce struggling with an injury or illness. However, one of the challenges HR leaders face is educating managers to detect signs that early intervention is needed. It means intervening when someone starts to show symptoms or a decline in work performance that suggests a risk of disability-related absence. The early warning signs that an employee is struggling and may need early intervention includes:

  • Excessive emotional responses and erratic behaviour
  • Obsession with parts of the job while neglecting other parts
  • Working longer hours than usual without the expected outputs or working fewer hours
  • Disengagement and withdrawal behaviour such as increased unplanned leave and lack of participation in work and social activities
  • Low morale, low motivation or low energy levels
  • Increased use of negative language and being involved in workplace conflict
  • Appearing tired and experiencing headaches or frequent aches and pains
  • Changes in physical appearances, such as less attention to personal grooming
  • Reduced performance at work

Why don’t employees seek early intervention?

According to Starling’s Chief Science Officer and Leading CBT Psychologist, Dr. Andrew Miki, there are multiple, complex reasons why employees do not seek the help they need despite the warning signs.

Self-Awareness

Being self-aware of your mental health is a skill that can be developed. But, unfortunately, according to our research, most people aren’t aware and do not have the skills to detect when and how far their mental health has declined. 

“Often, employees may not know what “normal” is when it comes to mental health. To help, HR leaders should look to digital solutions with clinical assessments built-in so employees can determine where their mental health is privately, at any time, and without impacting any benefits. Without an assessment or mental health training, there is no benchmark to compare their mental health to, so they continue with their day-to-day while their mental health declines. It isn’t until their mental health is in a critical state that they may do something about it, and at that point, it’s harder for them to recover.” – Chief Science Officer, Dr. Andrew Miki

Attitude for Mental Health

Variations in family attitudes and culture strongly influence our beliefs around mental illness and shape our attitudes towards mental health. 

“People’s openness to seeking support early on often depends on their upbringing and attitude around mental health. Families with a history of mental health problems are often more educated around mental health, treatment options, and therefore willing to seek help for themselves. HR leaders should therefore look for solutions that can scale out mental health education, also known as psychoeducation.” – Chief Science Officer, Dr. Andrew Miki

Stigma

Despite the best efforts of mental health campaigns and advocates, stigma in the workplace can outweigh someone’s motivation to seek help. They are afraid of the potential negative impacts on their reputation, career, and work relationships. 

“Stigma is one of the greatest barriers preventing people from getting the help they need most. To help, HR leaders should look to digital solutions to provide early-intervention support.” – Chief Science Officer, Dr. Andrew Miki

Resources

It will be critical for organizations to establish immediate, confidential, and unlimited mental health support offerings. Approximately 60% of employees do not get the support they need due to access, cost, and wait times.

“In recent years, digital interventions have risen to the forefront of healthcare due to its ability to scale support while delivering evidence-based treatment that improves mental health symptom scores. Now, digital solutions need to take it one step further and go beyond symptoms and build an employee’s ability to manage their mental health. At Starling, we call this building their “micro-skills”. For example, digital solutions should not only help employees determine their mood (a skill) but also how intense they are (a micro-skill).” – Chief Science Officer, Dr. Andrew Miki

How to focus on Early Intervention support?

A key part of the answer is to address undue strain through early intervention. In addition, employers should consider that every employee needs to constantly build the skills required to manage the daily challenges impacting their well-being, both at work and at home. The challenge is that the skills needed to do so require time, practice, and expert guidance.

Skills-building Support

Continuing access to skill-building resources like Starling Minds is essential. CBT is currently the frontrunner in delivering skills-based training and is a great example of support. CBT often includes mental health care modalities that help people understand and adapt their thoughts and emotional responses to life challenges. CBT is also effective in managing depression and anxiety through behaviour changes early on. 

Asking the right questions

As you consider the effectiveness of employee mental health solutions in your organization, here are some questions worth reflecting on:

  • Is your early intervention approach too narrow in focus and too late in the disability process?
  • Is there an opportunity to embed mental well-being skills and support into your employees’ day-to-day work experience?
  • Do you understand the stressors that are affecting your employees and their well-being?
  • Do you have an infrastructure or trusted personnel in your organization to ensure your well-being strategies can be successfully implemented and sustained? That infrastructure includes: senior leadership commitment, management training, effective internal communications and, most of all, easy access to support resources for your people

For many organizations, there needs to be a shift in approach to become truly proactive. We first need to rethink our assumptions about early intervention and then build well-being more deeply into our business culture. If we accomplish that, our organizations will also be healthier and more productive. Everybody wins.

As a leading online and digital therapy program, Starling is a unique platform that offers digital assessments, check-ups, CBT training, and trusted advisory services to help deliver immediate, unlimited, early-intervention support for employees on absence leave, disability, or returning to work. 

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Starling Minds

Starling Minds™ is a digital mental health platform that reduces absence and disability costs by delivering immediate, unlimited, and personalized digital Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Developed by leading psychologists, Starling’s digital therapy is powered by an expert system that emulates the processes and practices of human-guided therapy to remove the greatest barriers preventing employees from accessing affordable and effective mental health care—cost, access, and stigma.

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