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An Employer’s Playbook For Supporting Employees Post-COVID

By Kate Hobbs Knutson, MD, MPH | May 21, 2020 | 7 min read | Industry Perspectives, Coronavirus, Life at Blue Cross NC

As the coronavirus continues to spread, employees are juggling work and personal concerns in extraordinary new ways. In a recent poll, more than half of adults in the U.S. said they are experiencing worry and stress about the virus, and that the pandemic is taking a toll on their mental health.

The good news is that employers are in an ideal position to play an active role in supporting their employees’ mental health.

As employees continue to experience social isolation, financial concerns and other difficulties as the pandemic wears on, they will likely need additional support.

Mental health support matters

Richness of behavioral health benefits is becoming an important decision factor for many prospective employees. Problems like depression and substance use can directly impact employees’ well-being and productivity.

Meanwhile, younger workers are reporting higher prevalence of behavioral health conditions. A report last year in the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association’s Health of America series found 30 percent growth in major depression and ADHD from 2014 to 2017 among millennials in the workforce. These young workers value employers who support their ability to access care.

Here’s what employers should consider:


Individuals are five times more likely to use out-of-network benefits for behavioral health treatment than for physical health, according to the consulting firm Milliman. That’s because there aren’t enough psychiatrists, psychologists and other specialists to meet the growing demand for behavioral health care.

When selecting a health insurance program, companies should:

  • Be aware of “ghost networks,” or providers that are enrolled with insurance companies but that don’t actually see patients insured by the plans.
  • Ask their insurance companies for greater detail about their behavioral health providers, locations, availability, claims, and conditions treated.
  • Think beyond in-person visits. Options like telehealth, employee assistance programs (EAPs), and other digital solutions make high-quality care readily available.

For example, at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) is working with Quartet Health to help integrate behavioral health within primary care, launch value-based payment models for behavioral health providers, and measure true quality and access across our network. We also helped launch Eleanor Health, state-of-the-art treatment centers redesigned from the ground up to increase availability of for substance use disorders in North Carolina and nationally.

One goal of these efforts, which are a cornerstone of our behavioral health strategy, is to help employers improve access for their workforce while tapping into cost savings that Milliman estimates can range from nine percent to 17 percent through better integration with other parts of the health system.


Employers should also prioritize educating their workforce on when and how to seek care.

We all know of the stigma associated with seeking treatment for conditions like depression and substance use disorder. It’s especially difficult in the workplace, as employees may fear repercussions for speaking up or seeking help.

Employers can help end the stigma by reassuring employees that it’s okay to use the benefits available to them. You can also train your employees on mental health first aid. This allows colleagues to support one another and to communicate openly and directly about mental health.

Managers should also be familiar with the company’s health benefits, EAP and counseling services so they can discuss them with employees.

At Blue Cross NC, we are working to make behavioral health part of the everyday experience and conversation among our own employees. We have held a substance use disorder awareness week for the past two years, offering resources and confidential meetings with our internal experts for those seeking counseling or more information.

Our employee networks within the company also help foster a sense of inclusion and support for behavioral health. For example, the African-American/Black Employee Network has hosted several sessions on mental health and substance use issues within the black community. The Veterans group has held sessions on PTSD and other mental health issues pertinent to employees who have served in the military.

Behavioral health resources should play a key role in any workplace wellness strategy. For ideas and resources, see how we’re creating smarter, better health care for you and your employees.

Employee Assistance Program (EAP): EAP is a confidential voluntary, work-based program that offers free counseling for work related and/or personal problems. Ask your employer if there’s an EAP program where you work

Eleanor Health: Eleanor Health is an independent company that manages providers of addiction treatment and recovery services. Eleanor Health associated providers care for individuals with substance use disorders, including Blue Cross NC members, and do not offer Blue Cross or Blue Shield products or services.

Telehealth: Telehealth offers virtual consults with doctors, counselors, psychiatrists or other health professionals via video, phone or mobile app. Ask your employer if this program is available through your plan.

Quartet: Quartet Health is an independent company providing behavioral health care support services on behalf of Blue Cross NC. Quartet Health does not offer Blue Cross or Blue Shield products or services.