Treat mental health with the same care as physical health
By Tara Driscoll
Mental Health. Let’s talk about it. We have been dancing around the conversations with our employer groups for years. We sometimes cover it on the client review spreadsheet, with a copay and elaborate if there is a known client with mental health needs. It’s time we treat the mental health of our client’s employees with the same care that we do for their physical health.
When all of the old rules and ways of engaging no longer seem to apply, if we let go just long enough a new pathway is forged. That path is where we create the future.
For the duration of my nearly 20 years of group insurance sales, brokers have been defining and redefining their value, particularly when things get disrupted. Most agents were petrified when the Affordable Care Act was instituted. Many of them feared their role being displaced by the new rules and guidelines. Come to find out, the Affordable Care Act turned out to be less of a threat and more job security as small businesses and large companies navigated the new health insurance world. This only solidified the role of the insurance agent when it comes to helping American companies continue to demystify health insurance, provider networks, and a deductible.
Today, COVID-19 is the most recent shock to the American system. Shutting down companies, reducing work hours, and new restrictions changed how we exist in society. The attention on healthcare and health insurance has multiplied, creating another new opportunity to solidify the relationships brokers have with their clients. This is the time to truly be an expert.
Today’s world challenges the health insurance broker to think beyond group health insurance, and institute a philosophy of being the expert and advising clients in terms of what is happening in the current employee benefits environment. Far beyond medical proposals, spreadsheets, and rate comparisons, clients are looking to you as their advocate for how to protect their greatest asset, their people.
Our customers look to us as health insurance professionals to make sure we are taking the best care of their employees. Our entire environment has changed due to COVID-19. Twenty-one million employees have seen a reduction in work hours and many are now unemployed and collecting unemployment. Most states want their citizens to avoid social environments. If employees were not terminated, some have reduced work hours, without less bills to pay. Americans are concerned about their physical, financial, and mental well-being. Many schools have been closed and those children are home with their families, learning new technology to be educated while the pandemic ensues. The economy has suffered, the stock market took a crash and many of us were impacted by loss of investments and retirement. If ever there was a time for an increased focus on mental health care, now is that time.
This is one of those pivotal moments in a health insurance broker’s career. You are the expert in the eyes of the client. They look to you to provide tools, products, and solutions to support them in taking care of their employee’s well being. Most companies invest a significant portion of the operational budget to provide healthcare to their employees. It’s time we start including the mind of the human body as significantly as the rest of the human body.
What the numbers tell us
Let’s talk about statistics for a moment. According to a recent Kaiser study called Mental Health and Wellness Care, A Better Way to Take Care of Business, March 2020, “3 out of 4 employees have struggled with an issue that affected their mental health.”
This is afflicting people. The same Kaiser study found over 60% of missed days can be attributed to mental health conditions. To quantify that even more, untreated depression can cost more than $9,000 per year in absenteeism and lost productivity. To round out the impact mental illness has on the workforce, currently, the study states: “mental illness is the single greatest cause of worker disability worldwide.”
Here’s where you come in.
Talking about mental health initiates a conversation with your client you may never have had before.
Mental health is not only a health issue, it is a financial issue. This is exactly what a broker is here for, developing an approach to care for the employees of the organization, while looking out for ways for the client to save money.
We talk about medical groups, and the hospitals and facilities in our network. I wonder if anyone knows the local psychiatric hospital in that carrier’s portfolio. Nobody is going to bring it up. But as the expert they look to you to provide them with the information they need. By talking about it, we are helping our clients make choices that can improve the lives of their employees, or protect against the costs of absenteeism and lon-term disability.
Addressing the ongoing effects of the pandemic on emotional health
COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere, as we can see in these national surges in COVID-19 cases. The fears that plague the country when this first went into place in March continue to concern Americans as we keep an open mind to what happens next with COVID-19. In the meantime, this leaves most of us with a sense of concern as to when this will all end. If it doesn’t, we are all required to adopt a new normal which will continue to flare up emotional and mental health related concerns. This is your opportunity to be the expert and present the tools and resources available to the employees through their current vendors, or explore other vendors.
Employers look to you to provide all of the guidance they need to navigate through the COVID-19, and the subsequent changes as a result. Some clients will have to warm up to mental health as a business expense. Start by asking your sales representative from your favorite carriers to advise about their organization’s resources for self-care and wellness. Some of the carriers already have resources that you can provide to your client to help encourage good lifestyle choices, and self-care which can positively contribute to one’s mental health. This is a natural gateway to talking about mental health.
Brokers are leaders in the field of health insurance. They are the person the client trusts to help them make fully informed decisions that provide quality at an acceptable price. You are the expert in this field, and with great power, comes great responsibility.
Make it real
One in five Americans have a mental illness. There is a high probability that you yourself have had a personal experience with mental illness, or know someone who suffers from this. The client may also have a personal experience to draw upon, or knows someone who has been affected.
We know mental health is ripe with stigma, so it is completely understandable if the thought of this client conversation seems uncomfortable. They may feel the same way as you do. Start with the financials of the discussion and it will be simpler to make a connection. Sharing personal experience can also model how to destigmatize mental illness. And sharing how common it is can also ease the discussion.
My vote is to take advantage of the moment we are in to help our clients grow during this unprecedented time in their business. COVID-19 may be here for the foreseeable future, and companies are still navigating unprecedented hardships that may continue for the next 12 months.
Carpe Diem! Lean into a different conversation with your clients. Establish yourself as an authority in this new world, and be the expert your clients think you are. Take this opportunity to boost the level of your service and your resources by integrating mental illness into the conversation, reinforcing your role as trusted partner, when your client needs it the most.
Tara is a regional sales manager for Covered CA, in Oakland, Calif. Driscoll has worked in employee benefits for more than 18 years and is a thought-leader in the mental health arena. She believes mental health is a pillar in a person’s total wellbeing, integral to maintaining a healthy and productive lifestyle. As an ambassador for health insurance in Northern California, she looks for ways to make a meaningful impact.