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Firms save money on sick leave with online chat-based therapy sessions

Mental health problems are not always related to work.

Chat services offer fast help for employees with mental health issues. Image: Markku Pitkänen / Yle

Employers in Finland who fund better mental health care and digital chat-based therapy services report seeing large savings as workers take fewer sick leaves.

Grocery store chain Lidl recently began offering digital chat services to its employees, which help to get workers in touch with specialists who can provide practical advice for dealing with the difficulties they might be having.

"Digital services are a great way to help employees in difficult life situations," according to Lidl's HR director Sanna Rainio.

The average age of the supermarket chain's employees is around 30, which means that there are a lot of young people on staff. Using digital services is natural for them and there’s also great emphasis in training immediate supervisors to deal with mental health issues, says Rainio.

About eight years ago, as sick leaves were on the rise at Lidl, the company's workforce management scheme was systematically re-developed.

"We’ve saved about one million euros in reduced sick leaves, disability pensions and occupational health costs,” Rainio explains.

Growing problem

Mental health problems are a growing reason for sick leave, according to Kela, the Finnish Social Insurance Institution. During the years 2016-19, the number of people who were granted sick leave compensation for mental health reasons increased by 43 percent, according to the agency.

Two companies - retail cooperative S-Group and health care firm Terveystalo - have developed mental health chat applications to assist employees get needed help - as well to as save on sick leave costs.

The so-called _Mielen-_chat (Mind chat) service enables people to chat directly with mental health nurses around the clock, according to Lidl press officer Anna Rissanen.

For those needing more help, another service offers users online appointments with psychologists or psychotherapists. Later on, face-to-face appointments with occupational healthcare workers can also be arranged quickly, and within two weeks it’s possible for employees to start short-term, real-life psychotherapy sessions.

S-Group saves thousands of euros in reduced sick leaves

The S-Group says it has also seen sick leave absences for mental health reasons go down, and that using the chat apps has helped the firm save hundreds of thousands of euros.

Those savings are based on sick leave costs of around 350 euros per employee per day, as calculated by the Confederation of Finnish Industries.

"The explosive growth of mental health problems has surprised many employers in Finland," says Sanna-Mari Myllynen, the S-Group's director of engagement, well-being and health at work.

According to Myllynen, the company's improved performance results are based on the ability of supervisors to deal with mental health issues, as well as their support for the introduction of mental health care services.

"The companies within in S-Group where mental health absences had declined are the ones where short psychotherapy sessions were introduced," says Myllynen.

According to Myllynen, one very important aspect is to help people recovering from a mental-related health sick leave to get back to work. Especially after a year’s sick leave, the threshold for returning is very high.

At S-Group, supervisors help returning employees make necessary changes in the workplace so that getting back to work will be as seamless and smooth as possible.

The benefits of short psychotherapy

Auli Rytivaara, a specialist doctor at the Confederation of Finnish Industries, says that short psychotherapy sessions can also help to address problems.

"[Short-term] therapy focuses on solving a problem that is currently being faced. The therapy doesn't need to go deep into the person's entire life story, it just needs to provide help in a solution-oriented way at that moment," says Rytivaara.

Rytivaara says that digital, low-threshold services are beneficial, as many times booking a real-world appointment only offers help at a later date, not immediately, when it's most acutely needed.

According to Kela, mental health-related absences have increased, especially among young and middle-aged women. For women, mental illness is the most common reason for receiving sick pay whereas for men the most common causes are musculoskeletal disorders.

Rytivaara notes that employee burnout rates in Finland have also increased, with about one in four workers experiencing mild burnout during their career and a few percent experiencing severe burnout.

Rates of anxiety and depression have also increased, according to Rytivaara.

Problems not necessarily related to work

"Anxiety affects the here and now, and depression comes more gradually. First there's insomnia, and then there's feeling blue, and then it's hard to get anything done, and everything seems miserable."

According to Rytivaara, the reasons for mental health issues are not always work-related but often family situations, life crises or problems that originated in youth.

"For those in the workforce, the main reason for mental health issues is not at work, but work can exacerbate mental health disorders and symptoms," says Rytivaara.

"Caring is all of our responsibility, especially in the workplace, as well-being in the work place means more productive companies and members of society," she adds.