We recently got the chance to speak to Roee Ben-Eli, Director of Strategic Programs at TELUS Health Virtual Care, who discussed his journey as a healthcare professional with over 20 years of experience in multiple areas, most effective methods to address the gaps affecting mental health conditions, best ways to extend the limited coverage for mental health services in order to adequately cover the support that employees need, how effective is the coverage in assisting employees to access services that are burdensome, and the role of company leaders in filling these gaps in mental health support.
Roee Ben-Eli has been a practicing Registered Nurse in the province of Quebec in various fields of the profession, over the past 20 years. Beginning his career on the front lines, Roee worked on the internal medicine ward and emergency room to operations management in community and private clinical spaces. Over the past decade, Roee has dived into program development in family medicine, specialty medicine, and psychiatry.
As the Director of Mental Health at EQ Care, acquired by TELUS Health in 2020, Roee spearheaded workplace initiatives and programs that bring mental healthcare to employees and their families. Currently, as the Director of Strategic Programs at TELUS Health Virtual Care, Roee is focused on collaborating and developing integrated and holistic care models within the vast TELUS Health ecosystem.
How will you describe your journey as a healthcare professional with over 20 years of experience in multiple areas? And how does your position as Director of Strategic Programs for Virtual Care at TELUS Health enable you to concentrate on the various mental health program development initiatives?
Prior to joining TELUS Health, I worked as a nurse for 21 years in various fields including internal medicine and in hospital emergency rooms. I was also an operational manager and director in a multidisciplinary clinic with family medicine, cardiology, urology and mental health services; and a mental health program manager for a virtual healthcare company. Through these roles I gained experience across the healthcare continuum including direct physical care, healthcare management, project development and care facilitation. When I started working in the workplace wellness space, I observed the urgent need for more empathetic and effective mental health services for those in the workforce, and this is something I became personally invested in improving. Over the past few years in my role at TELUS Health, I’ve witnessed the increased need of employers to support the mental health of employees and I think this can be achieved in the next decade by companies like TELUS Health with our growing presence and influence across Canada’s healthcare space.
Since Canada has witnessed a historic shift in corporate attitudes toward mental health conditions, there are still many gaps that need to be addressed; what do you believe are the most effective methods for doing so?
It has been historic indeed, and I should note that mental health support available to Canadian employees has come a long way with companies making great investments and strides towards reducing the stigma surrounding these types of health concerns in the workplace. But while progress has been made, we are not done yet. Many barriers exist which prevent employees from addressing their mental health concerns, the biggest of which is the accessibility of these services.
One solution to this gap is integrating systems so employees have one place they can go to access mental health and any other health supports provided through their benefits plans – for the employer, this means centralizing all services into a single digital platform and working with their insurer to develop a system where all electronic filings of external health claims can be stored on the same system. It shouldn’t take weeks of referrals and repeated “storytelling” (i.e. explaining mental health symptoms to multiple people or completing several online forms) for employees to access the care they urgently need. This extended and lengthy process can often discourage employees from getting the help they need (and they often give up on trying). An integrated digital system with a single point of entry for all health benefits and claims adjudication can help resolve some of the time and effort spent when an employee is trying to reach mental health support, taking the strain out of the process and getting them closer to healing.
What, in your opinion, is the best way to extend the limited coverage for mental health services in order to adequately cover the support that employees may need?
There is significant research available to help employers better understand the evolving benefits landscape and how they can better meet their employees’ needs. Understanding their unique workforce is also important and it’s worth every penny to take the time to do it right. Whether it’s engaging employees (surveys, focus groups, etc.) to find out what types of health supports they would benefit from, or to assess where they view the gaps in their current benefits plan, this knowledge is incredibly valuable. Of course, this research may see some employees asking for unrealistic coverage (i.e. unlimited access to mental health supports), but it may also reveal more feasible changes that can be made in the short-term.
This engagement may also see employees propose a modification to their benefits plans allowing increased flexibility for coverage to be redirected to mental health support – giving employers something reasonable to consider. When I first started working in the workplace wellness space, I worked with a game development company. Their employee average age was 28 and the benefit plan emphasized exercise, physical therapy and healthy eating. Five years later, the plans shifted coverage, and services to those focused more on mental health, financial health and family support. Employers need to evolve with their employee base. You can’t simply set it and forget it. Doing the research can help companies to better design their health benefits programs to align with evolving employee needs.
How will the coverage assist employees in accessing services that are burdensome and leave them confused about which services are available?
Increasing coverage for mental health supports is an ideal solution, but we know that this isn’t realistic for many companies. To ensure these health benefits are effective for employees while also being sustainable to a company, we look at the last three years of disability cases, use of Employee and Family Assistance Programs (EFAP) services, use of paramedical and allied health benefits and identify trends. This analysis allows an employer to identify the associated costs of the programs, the benefit to the employee, and to see any health plan shortcomings. It’s amazing when you stop and see the costs of not having a strategic approach to employee wellness, especially when factoring in recruitment and retention, as well as absenteeism and presenteeism as key drivers of cost. Suddenly, the cost of providing a wellness package becomes negligible in comparison to the positive impact on employee happiness, health, productivity and the bottom line.
Confusion is an accurate way to describe how many employees feel when they are looking to access mental health services through their benefits plan. It can be a labyrinth trying to find out what’s available to them and how their coverage works for external services. To help address this barrier and improve awareness and understanding of mental health benefits, companies should look at ways to regularly engage employees to provide this information, in plain language, and create a system where people can easily reach out to HR staff if they have any questions – with answers provided promptly. This approach will help employees know what is available to them and make the process of accessing these services more comfortable for those who need them immediately and those who may need the services at some point in the future.
Communicating this information to employees is crucial in getting them to actually use the mental health supports and coverage available to them – providing them with the right intervention at the right time. Research has shown that the earlier someone can get help for a mental health concern, the better they can manage it in the long-run and avoid a situation where they require extensive support, which may not be fully supported by their benefits plan.
In addition to the issues listed above, what are the most common obstacles faced by employees in this regard, and how can companies overcome these obstacles to assist employees in receiving adequate and consistent mental health support?
A major obstacle we are seeing emerge is getting employees the “right” mental health support for their specific condition or situation. If someone is experiencing anxiety or depression, who do they talk to? A therapist? A psychologist? Maybe it’s something a social worker can help them with? It’s not clear for many people, and I think this is an area where Canada’s health system needs to improve more broadly. Think about this: when you go to a hospital, you go through a triage to determine what medical services you require but when it comes to mental health you have to navigate it on your own. This is an area where companies like TELUS Health can help innovate screening and triage systems so employees not only get the specific help they need, but also have a more sustainable benefits program.
“Today, TELUS Health offers care advocates that provide guidance to employees to assess their needs and identify which supports are available to them. We are getting more and more specific and sophisticated in the process, but there are still many things companies can do to help employees on their journey to seeing effective mental health intervention. HR staff can develop toolkits that provide information on services for different mental health concerns – i.e., what type of counseling may be best for specific conditions/situations – and the frequency of these appointments. Even if a company does not have strong coverage for these services, providing this information will show staff that a company is committed to their health and wellbeing.”
What, in your opinion, is the role of company leaders in filling these gaps in mental health support, and what can they do beyond their benefits plan to assist their coworkers?
Employers should look to invest in training for their leaders that give them the skills and techniques to identify and action support for their teams regarding mental health. For many leaders, this is a new skill. Leaders need to be able to not only recognize when a colleague or an employee isn’t doing well, but also know how to engage them to understand what they need and connect them with the resources that will help them. Leaders need to be able to create a safe space for employees and show them that they are listening and exercising empathy. This type of regular engagement and communication can go a long way in supporting an employee on their path to improved mental health.
I should be clear that company leaders are not doctors or counselors and their role in mental health intervention for staff is not about “preventing” an event. It is about being proactive and trying to support an employee at an earlier stage so they have someone they can talk to in an effort to help reduce the delay in getting the medical attention they need. While this means extra training and time for leaders, it will pay dividends down the road with potential increases in employee satisfaction in the workplace and retention, and a decrease in absenteeism.