How meeting children’s behavioral health needs can affect employee productivity

Guidance from Johanna Vidal-Phelan, MD, MBA, UPMC Insurance Services Division’s Chief Medical Officer, Quality Department

Employee health is often a priority for organizations that recognize healthy employees are productive employees.1 While this is a great start, companies must think holistically and factor behavioral health into the definition of employee health—giving it the same weight, attention, and resources as medical or physical health care needs.

Johanna Vidal-Phelan, MD, MBA, UPMC Insurance Services Division’s Chief Medical Officer, Quality Department, shares her guidance on how companies should consider the entire family unit—including parents, caregivers, and children. Without behavioral health support that includes targeted resources for children, focus and productivity can suffer as parents try to manage these concerns on their own—especially as we return to the workplace.

The behavioral health pandemic shift for families

The pandemic presented widespread challenges to employees from unpredictable childcare and lack of transportation to education concerns, employment instability, and financial hardships, among others. To understand and show empathy for these challenges that employees may be still working to overcome, employers should consider two critical elements: family structure and social determinants of health, which are conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life risks and outcomes.2

It’s important to recognize that family makeup can go beyond the perceived traditional structure of parents and children. Many families are headed by a single parent, grandparent, foster parents, or extended family members who may have more than one job and be tasked with caring for themselves, children in the household, and elderly parents.

When a family is affected by social determinants of health, you must ask yourself whether the primary caregiver is getting enough support. Unfortunately, the reality is that when primary caregivers struggle to support their own needs, children in the household are affected.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites that only about 20 percent of children with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders receive care from a specialized mental health care provider.3 This statistic is more than a number to gloss over; it is a serious indicator of stressors and struggles that not only affect employees and their families at home, but also their ability to focus at work and be productive in the workplace. Parents and caregivers can work directly with a pediatrician or PCP to address any behavioral health needs their child may have. Through this direct communication, a total care plan can be developed which may include therapy or psychiatric care.

The effect of children’s behavioral health concerns in the workplace

Just like adults, children can experience a behavioral health diagnosis and related issues— making it critical to approach this diagnosis as you would with a physical health condition. According to the CDC, nearly 1 in 5 children have a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder4, such as anxiety or depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), disruptive behavior disorder, or Tourette syndrome. Parents and caregivers need to know that when a behavioral health diagnosis is identified in a child, the sooner they are treated, the better the outcome.

Unlike an adult who can identify their own issues and get the necessary care, a child depends on a parent or caregiver to get help for behavioral health needs. Much like addressing physical health needs, meeting behavioral health needs means that the employee must find a provider, make appointments, and take the child to these appointments. For many employees, finding the time for these appointments and getting to them can be a struggle.

While this may seem like an area that affects only the employee and their family, it can have downstream impacts on the organization. Employees who are working and worried about their child’s behavioral or medical health conditions may have difficulty concentrating, being present and productive, and achieving their full potential at work.

Helping employees find a balance

As an employer, you can support families’ needs by being as flexible as possible with your employees. If you know a parent or caregiver needs to take a few hours away from work to take their child to an appointment, consider accommodating this need by allowing employees to work the hours missed either earlier or later in the day when possible.

Offering a health plan that provides access to behavioral health resources for children is another pathway to support the overall well-being of your employees and their families. When you evaluate a health plan, consider its structure and the abilities it affords to both understand and meet the needs of all populations, including children. A health plan that is part of an integrated health care system can maximize the investment you make in the total health and wellness of your employees.

Because UPMC Health Plan is part of an integrated health system, operating under the integrated delivery and finance system (IDFS) model, we can develop and deliver access to comprehensive and holistic care modalities that include medical and behavioral health care for specific populations, including children. Our IDFS model enables providers, including pediatricians and behavioral health providers, to share the knowledge and expertise needed to coordinate behavioral health care and deliver targeted interventions more efficiently.

UPMC Health Plan’s IDFS model in practice:

Pediatric care management team. This dedicated team of social workers, pediatric nurses, and support staff engages with our pediatric members, their parents, and caregivers.

Pediatric health coaches. Our health coaches are an incredible support for families because they not only discuss exercise and nutrition, but also holistic care that can meet spiritual, emotional, and physical needs.

Telehealth. Our telehealth platform, UPMC AnywhereCare, allows eligible members to have access to virtual counseling sessions for mental and behavioral health care. UPMC Children’s AnywhereCare allows parents/caregivers of children ages 0-17 to have virtual visits 24/7 with UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh providers over live video.

RxWell app. Children age 16 and older can use our free RxWell app, which is designed to help members improve their mental and physical health using self-guided activities and support from a health coach. Parents can use also use RxWell, both for themselves to and to learn and share the techniques and skills with their children. Healthy Families is a new program on the RxWell app that helps families make healthy changes together like these:

  • Eating more fruits and vegetables
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Reducing screen time
  • Being active as a family
  • Eating more family meals
  • Drinking fewer sugary drinks

UPMC Health Plan coverage for pediatric care

As an employer, you mainly interact with your adult employees, not their families. You don’t see your employees in their home environment interacting with their children, so you may not know what parents and caregivers who have children with behavioral health needs go through each day. While children’s behavioral health might not be front and center in the workplace, it is still critical for your organization to support families in getting the behavioral health care they need—just the same as you do for medical health care needs.

Offering your employees coverage that gives their entire family access to high-quality medical and behavioral health care can be an effective support that allows employees to get their needs met and focus on their performance.

Find out more about our employer group coverage, contact your producer or call 1-833-825-2696.

RxWell was recently featured on the TODAY show. Watch the segment below to see real-world applications of the app:

To hear more from Dr. Vidal-Phelan, listen to her recent appearance on Good Health, Better World: Childhood, interrupted: Adolescent and pediatric behavioral health

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Find out more about our employer group coverage:
Contact your producer or call 1-833-825-2696.

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1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Increase productivity. Accessed Sept. 9, 2022.

2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Social Determinants of Health: Know What Affects Health. Accessed Oct. 10, 2022.

3Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Improving access to children’s mental health care. Accessed Sept. 9, 2022.