Anxiety. Burnout. Depression. Make mental health a priority for your agency

April 12, 2023

Almost every day, mental health is in the news. Increasingly employers are understanding that they must be part of the solution to improve mental health for millions of Americans.

In my decades of experience in the insurance industry and the behavioral health field, I have not experienced the focus and prioritization of mental health that I see today. As an experienced licensed clinician, I am advocating for our industry and the business community at large to capitalize on this unique opportunity in time.

There are a couple ways in which agencies can support mental health in the workplace—as business partners for employers, as well as businesses hiring and retaining important employees in the insurance industry.

A workplace issue

Today, mental health is not simply a public health issue. It is a workplace issue that businesses cannot ignore because employee well-being—including mental health—profoundly influences a company’s bottom line.

Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.[1] In 2022, 71% of U.S. employers said the deteriorating mental health of their workforce negatively impacted their company.[2]

Mental health conditions are among the top five reasons for U.S. workers to file a short-term disability claim.[3] A person diagnosed with a primary injury or illness—along with the presence of psychological factors, such as anxiety or depression—takes two to three times longer to recover than someone with similar injuries or illness and no additional psychological factors.[4]

Agents who help employers better support their employees’ mental health can be considered innovative and empathetic business partners who understand how to advance companies’ goals, and who help boost their bottom line. Agents who support the mental health of their own workforce can differentiate themselves in the employment marketplace, which ultimately can help achieve better business outcomes.

Empathetic leadership

Although employers may believe they are fostering a supportive workplace, research shows U.S. workers feel their companies are falling short on access, flexibility, and resources.[5] That gap between employers and employees about psychological safety can be shrunk by exhibiting empathetic leadership, adapting to the needs of a multigenerational and diverse workforce, and providing flexibility and mental health resources that meet each employee population’s needs.

To be inclusive of what isn’t readily seen—such as mental health conditions—requires a companywide commitment to education and empathy to remove stigma as a barrier to employees asking for help. Building trust throughout an organization requires leaders to listen to and implement feedback, use inclusive language, prioritize confidentiality, and model behaviors.

Nothing can be more discouraging to an employee than a manager or employer writing off his or her needs or concerns. In a time of escalated uncertainty and anxiety, it is crucial for leaders and managers to acknowledge the increase in stressors for their employees, and that each individual employee faces a unique set of challenges.

Leaders can promote the use of respectful, person-first language when talking about mental health conditions. Leaders also can establish mental health training for managers so that they are given the education and resources to effectively support employee mental health. Managers need to validate their employees’ experiences and express that what they are going through is common, the stress in today’s world is real, and they don’t have to do it alone.

Some employees may feel hesitant to discuss their concerns or situations at home. This could be for a variety of reasons, such as embarrassment, fear of losing their job, or a cultural custom. Companies can offer an outlet, such as an anonymous survey or the opportunity for an employee to write responses privately to some of these more delicate questions, as an excellent way to gather employee feedback on mental health.

Flexibility

Leaders can establish policies and practices that demonstrate to employees that mental health is a priority for the organization (e.g., flexibility). Flexible work has been a staple of return-to-work arrangements for employees who are recovering from a disabling illness or injury. Flexible work arrangements include remote work, a compressed work week, and flex time.

The pandemic elevated the importance of workplace flexibility, and now flexibility is more important than ever to all employees. Employers who offer flexible work arrangements will have an advantage in recruiting and retention—and help with supporting mental well-being in the workplace. Research shows employers think they are offering flexibility, but many U.S. workers disagree. Agents can take the opportunity to review company procedures and policies about flexible work and consider discussing those with their employer clients.

DEI connection

Researchers and, in turn, employers are understanding the tangible and powerful connection between mental health and diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.

Microaggressions, code-switching, and imposter syndrome are behaviors understood in the context of racism and discrimination. They also can affect the mental health of many working Americans. If employees feel like they cannot bring their whole selves to work or feel like they don’t belong, that’s an impact to their well-being—and in turn to a business’s bottom line.

Increasing the feelings of inclusiveness, empathy, and flexibility for workers can help remove the stigma that blocks care. Employers can promote racial equity by identifying problems, giving an equal voice to employees of all backgrounds and cultures, and educating the workforce on racial equity.[6]

Employee resource groups can offer peer-to-peer support, particularly for those whose race, culture or identity affects their individual decisions about mental health. ERGs can help establish a safe place for conversation and learning as part of a company-wide approach to mental well-being.

Gen Z workers—those in their 20s and younger—have made mental health a central part of their job search. Agents who take key steps within their own workforce to offer mental health resources that Gen Z desires, can leverage this as a differentiator in the job market.

Now is not the time for employers to scale back on DEI or mental health initiatives, especially when recruitment challenges make it difficult for some companies to achieve the employee mix that they want. Now is an ideal time to embed inclusive mental health initiatives into your agency’s DEI strategies.

By normalizing mental health as part of total health, employees have the potential to feel more comfortable in seeking mental health care in the workplace.

Benefits

Agents can help their employer clients create benefits packages with tailored insurance coverage offerings that support mental health in the workplace and beyond. Employers can think beyond the traditional Employee Assistance Program, and they can consider adding digital apps and wellness programs to their benefits packages. Employers should keep in mind that wellness programs designed for specific issues, such as insomnia, have added mental health advantages. For example, researchers have found sleep problems can both contribute to—or exacerbate—mental health conditions.

Benefits must be easy to understand and accessible, without stigma, for them to be most useful for employees. That means now, with the current focus on mental health, is a great opportunity to communicate widely to employees about a company’s benefit programs.

There are a host of free mental health and wellness applications and telehealth resources that can supplement resources offered in the workplace. Employers can help make employees aware of mental health and emergency crisis hotlines—such as the helpline by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization. It can be reached by phone call or text at (800) 950-6264, Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (EST).

Mental health movement

I am grateful and encouraged by the progress made to support employees’ mental health to-date. I will continue to advocate for more—because the need is great and the time for action is now.

I hope more agents and their employer clients will join the mental health movement. Making mental health and employee well-being a top workplace priority will not only benefit your agency—it will make our industry and society a better place as well.

In a crisis?  
Call or text 9-8-8 to reach the suicide and crisis lifeline, which is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States.

This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of PIA Magazine.


[1] World Health Organization, 2022

[2] The Hartford’s Future of Benefits Study, 2022

[3] Top five reasons for short-term disability claims for last four years, excluding pregnancy, were musculoskeletal injury, cancers and other neoplasms, digestive conditions, and mental health conditions

[4] Analysis of four years (2014-18) of The Hartford’s workers’ compensation and disability claims data

[5] The Hartford’s Future of Benefits Study, 2022

[6] Arlene S. Hirsch, “Advancing Racial Equity in the Workplace,” Society for Human Resource Management, July 15, 2021

Adele Spallone
The Hartford

Adele Spallone is the head of The Hartford’s clinical operations for Workers’ Compensation and Group Benefits. Reach her at adele.spallone@thehartford.com.

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