A group of Minnesota business leaders called on fellow employers Tuesday to upgrade their benefits packages and workplace attitudes in an effort to improve the treatment of depression and reduce the state’s rising suicide rate.

Citing reduced productivity and increased prescription drug costs, leaders with the Minnesota Health Action Group said companies have both economic and moral reasons to take on mental health.

They also unveiled a series of practices that local companies have adopted in the last year to help workers struggling with depression or other illnesses. At Best Buy Co., for example, executives are trying to normalize mental illness — and encourage employees to seek care — by discussing their own experiences with depression. Hennepin County expanded its health insurance benefits, which now pay in-network rates to therapists even if employees go outside their network for mental health care.

“There is a sense of commitment and a sense of the moment that hasn’t been there in the past,” said Deb Krause, vice president of the action group, a health care reform organization funded by some of Minnesota’s largest employers.

The effort comes one day after a report showing little progress in improving the quality of depression treatment by the state’s primary care clinics. A nonprofit called Minnesota Community Measurement (MNCM) ranked clinics by the percent of their depressed patients who receive follow-up care, and achieve remission, at six and 12 months after diagnosis.

Only 8 percent of clinic patients with depression achieved remission in six months in 2018 — a rate that hasn’t budged in years.

“It’s been stuck,” Krause said.

Follow-up needed

That’s a sharp contrast to the kinds of improvement that clinics have achieved in the treatment of diabetes and vascular disease, two other measures tracked by MNCM.

One problem is that clinics aren’t reaching out in six months to check on patients with depression, who by the nature of their illnesses might be hesitant to make appointments, said Julie Sonier, president of the measurement organization. “If they aren’t getting follow-up care, it does not mean they are doing better,” she said. “We have a responsibility to reach out and find out how they’re doing.”

The business impact of unmanaged depression is substantial. The average worker with depression misses 4.6 more days of work each year than employees without the condition, according to a 2013 Gallup-Healthways poll, with an estimated loss of $23 billion annually in U.S. productivity.

Krause said employers with the action group decided to take on mental health after their Bridges to Excellence clinic reward program helped bring about improvements in the treatment of other conditions such as diabetes, but not in the treatment of depression.

Best Buy’s solution includes a campaign in which executives shared personal mental health struggles and urged workers to take advantage of a revamped employee assistance program. It worked, said Liz Beckius, a senior manager for employee benefits at Best Buy.

“People reached out. They sought help,” she said. “They realized they weren’t alone in their experiences.”

Suicides have increased significantly in Minnesota in recent years, particularly among working-age adults. A Star Tribune review of death records found 788 suicides in the state last year, compared to 573 a decade earlier.

Suicides among Best Buy employees helped drive changes in the national company, Beckius said. “When it’s in your own house, it feels quite urgent.”

Better benefit plans

Leaders of the Health Action Group also urged employers to adjust their benefit plans to cover the sort of counseling and therapeutic support that can help patients between their clinic appointments and therapy sessions.

MNCM data showed that the Entira primary care clinic in West St. Paul achieved remission within six months in 37 percent of patients with depression last year, and its doctors attribute that largely to care coordinators who reach out to depressed patients to check on their health.

“It’s critical to the success,” said Dr. Tim Hernandez, who practices at the West St. Paul clinic.

By comparison, 11 clinics in Minnesota achieved remission in none of their depression patients within six months last year.

Business leaders also discussed strategies such as employee resiliency training to reduce the sort of workplace stress and anxiety that can trigger mental health problems.

One of the companies in the action group, Emerson Rosemount, trained its human resource employees to recognize mental health symptoms in co-workers and talk to them effectively, Krause said.

Beckius said Best Buy encourages employees to ask for amenities they need to manage stress and anxiety — whether it be a corner cubicle or headphones to drown out noise. One worker openly discussed his post-traumatic stress with colleagues and described how physical activity helped him get through the workday.

“He’ll get up,” she said, “and do push-ups in the middle of the hallway.”