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February 28
13:56 2022


Starting conversations, uplifting lives

By Thomas A. McCoy, CLU

In January, we reported on the growing interest in providing mental health support in the workplace. Benefit plans are broadening their mental health offerings, including digitally delivered solutions, and these have the potential to make a real difference in the lives of workers and their families.

Another dimension of mental health care takes place in the human interactions that agents and brokers experience every day with colleagues, family, friends and others in their community. Agents give, as well as receive, mental health support in their role as a boss, parent, coach, leader, mentor and colleague.

The emphasis is on the every day. A broken bone may be healed and never need attention again. Taking care of mental health is more like the need for physical exercise and a good diet; if neglected, there are consequences.

The struggle is real

“Most of the United States work-force is experiencing a heightened amount of stress,” says Adele Spallone, head of clinical operations for workers compensation and disability at The Hartford. “We’re asking employers to educate their workforce about mental health, to minimize stigma and encourage their workers to seek help when they need it.

“It’s okay to talk to somebody. It’s okay to engage with some of the digital apps or talk to someone on telehealth if you don’t want to see a behavioral health professional in person. It’s really all about the person experiencing a behavioral health condition and understanding that they have a need for help and that they are validated.”

Still, she points out, The Hartford’s 2021 Future of Benefits Study shows that among workers in a wide range of organizations “only 56% said the leadership at their company encourages conversation around mental health.” This compares to 77% of employers who said leadership at their company encourages conversations about mental health.

This statistic points to the difficulty inherent in starting mental health conversations. It’s hard whether you’re an executive in a large company or you’re an independent agent with a much smaller workforce. You might suspect—or maybe not—that someone you work with, live with, or see regularly in the community needs encouragement to seek mental health support. But knowing how to help them isn’t easy.


Recent research by employee benefits providers shows that younger generations are prime candidates for mental health support, both in terms of their need and their interest in receiving support. A Swiss Re study of some 4,500 consumers conducted during the early stages of the pandemic identified a target group of those most enthusiastic about support for their mental well-being: 58% were ages 25 to 40, 32% were41 to 55, and 10% were 55 and above.

The Hartford’s 2021 Future of Benefits Study found that workers experiencing the most frequent feelings of depression or anxiety was delineated as Gen Z/Younger Millennials (52%), Older Millennials (38%), Gen X (26%), and Baby Boomers (10%).

“It can be more helpful just to be available to listen and support and express understanding; and also letting young people know that you have felt the same way … .”

—Dr. Erica Gibson

Division Chief of Medicine

UVM Children’s Hospital

Mental health needs, like physical health needs, are present in all generations, but in reaching out to those in need, the lower end of the age scale appears to be a priority. Dr. Erica Gibson, division chief of medicine at the UVM Children’s Hospital in Burlington, Vermont, spoke at a recent podcast presented by the University of Vermont Health Network about ways for parents to talk to their children who might be struggling with their mental health.

“I think it’s really important to normalize emotions and discuss them openly and acknowledge them,” she said. “It’s not so helpful to tell people, ‘Don’t cry,’ or ‘Don’t worry.’ It can be more helpful just to be available to listen and support and express understanding; and also letting young people know that you have felt the same way can be very helpful, too. And then working with them to help figure out in their own way what they might need to feel better is really important.

“We can be so quick to rush in with words and action steps when people are in distress, and sometimes that’s really necessary, but it can also be okay just to sit in silence and listen.”

Overcoming barriers

Swapnil Prabha, vice president of digital offerings solutions at Unum, says, “The events over the last two years have normalized conversations around mental health to some extent. However, the stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental health remains a barrier.”

For agents and brokers looking for an opening to a conversation with someone about their mental health, a well-known sports figure might be a good point of reference. Last summer Simone Biles, who had been performing at the top of the gymnastics world, removed herself from competition at the Summer Olympics out of concern for her own mental well-being. Her decision has been widely acclaimed by her fellow athletes and leaders in many fields.

The National Football League has been running public service video messages from players whose lives have been changed by mental health issues. They encourage people to talk openly about mental health and seek help when needed.

One video segment features Michael Robinson, a former NFL fullback with the Seattle Seahawks, where he says, “As an athlete, the biggest challenge regarding mental health is having to express it. I was kind of from the old school way of playing football, where you never told anybody if you were going through something at home. It was a tough man’s kind of sport.”

The video begins with Robinson’s personal story. His uncle, who lived with Robinson’s family, suffered from mental health problems. “I knew at an early age how important it is to have a support system around you when you’re dealing with your mental health,” Robinson says in the video.

He talks about the pressure of playing in the NFL, where a player’s job security can be quickly upended by competition from the new players who are continually coming on board. “It can definitely put some anxiety on you.

“About halfway through my career, I came to the Seattle Seahawks, and that’s when the conversation started to change,” Robinson continues. “Coach Pete Carroll did a great job of nurturing good mental health. We would actively talk about how you’re feeling, not about how you’re playing.”

Words matter

Spallone, who is also a licensed behavioral health clinician, says, “Openly talking about mental health is number one in addressing the stigma that exists, but not everyone is comfortable talking about it. Changing the language we use can be very meaningful and helpful.”

For example, she says, “Maybe we can talk about ‘well-being’ instead of ‘mental health.’ When people hear ‘mental health’ they think about a psychiatric illness versus a simple medical condition.

“It’s important to avoid words tied to stigma.

“Changing the language we use can be very meaningful and helpful … . We can talk about ‘well-being’ instead of ‘mental health.’ … We can substitute the word ‘abuse’ for ‘misuse.’”

—Adele Spallone

Head of Clinical Operations, Workers Compensation and Disability

The Hartford

“We can substitute the word ‘abuse’ for ‘misuse.’ Nobody wants to think that they are ‘abusing substances,’ but we have seen an increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic. It might be easier for someone to say, ‘maybe I have been misusing alcohol.’”

In addition, The Hartford’s 2021 Future of Benefits report notes that its non-profit partner, the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI), suggests avoiding the terms “suffer,” “disorder” or “afflicted.” Consider using “treatment plan of my choice” or “what works for me.”

In fact, the perfect slogan for taking care of mental health care needs—in contrast with physical health care—could well be “What works for me.” The human mind and the emotions that make up a person are unique.

Accessing help

When mental health needs call for therapy, the cost and access to therapists can be an obstacle. In a recent survey of workers in various industries, Mercer provided a list of mental health care solutions and asked the workers to rate those they would most value from their employer. The leading response (49%) was “a program that reduces the cost of mental health treatment (including therapy and medication).”

Online treatment of mental health, which can reduce costs and improve access to care, has gained momentum during the pandemic, along with telemedicine for physical health. The Mercer survey reported that 42% of employees expressed a preference for “virtual mental health counseling to manage anxiety, sadness or personal relationship issues.”

The survey participants also said they value “virtual support groups for those who are feeling alone and isolated” (39%) and “tools that provide training on how to identify and support others facing mental health challenges” (38%).

Just realizing that there could be insurance coverage available can be important. A recent research report by Swiss Re notes, “Mental health cover is available as part of disability and medical insurance policies; even critical illness typically covers severe mental health conditions.” Yet, Swiss Re found that among the workers that the report identified as most interested in receiving mental health support in the workplace, 71% were unaware of policies offering coverage for negative mental health episodes.

Work in progress

It could be comforting to an individual puzzling over whether they should seek mental health care to realize that there is a wide continuum of possible mental health needs, some of which can be categorized as “preventative.” The Swiss Re study found that almost half of those who were interested in receiving mental health support (46%) consider-ed their mental health to be “good” or “very good.”

Unum recently introduced to employers a behavioral health solution in which a worker can enroll in one of three paths, depending upon a guided assessment of their mental health needs. One of those paths, as described by Unum, is a “self-guided program” for those with “low levels of stress.” The content in this path is designed to help “identify triggers and opportunities for combatting stress as they build their own wellness action plan.”

As more people begin to think of mental health care—like physical health care—as something to approach in a pro-active, “preventative maintenance” way, we could be one step closer to eliminating the stigma and normalizing the mental health conversation.

Regardless of the type of mental health support an individual may need, getting past the initial hurdle of reaching out for some kind of help may be the hardest. That is where agents and brokers, in their everyday roles as a mentor, boss, colleague, parent or friend, may be the most important contributor to someone’s mental health.


For more information:

The Hartford

National Alliance on Mental Illness

NFL Mental Health Awareness

Swiss Re

University of Vermont Health Network

Unum Insurance

The author
Thomas A. McCoy, CLU, is an Indiana-based freelance insurance writer

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