My desire to improve mental health in the workplace led me to voluntarily quit a well-paying HR executive job this year to pursue my interest in this neglected human resources responsibility. Several factors converged to compel me to take this step, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) made my endeavor possible.
My years of working with employees who endured mental illness while trying to hang onto their jobs gave me the experience and voice to address this controversial issue from both an employee’s and an employer’s perspective.
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., and deaths by suicide have been rising for a decade with one of the largest demographic increases being among working-age people. As much as 90% of those who kill themselves are believed to have had a mental illness at the time of their deaths.
Depression and anxiety are the most common mental illnesses. In any given year, almost 20 percent of the population suffer from a mental illness, and 60 percent of them don’t seek treatment. From my experience and observations in HR, I saw that many employees were, indeed, experiencing mental illnesses, coming to work, and not getting treatment. These same employees would rarely hesitate to seek medical attention for physical illnesses. During the course of my career, I experienced three employee suicides—including one onsite—and a near suicide, and I knew employees with PTSD resulting from violence in the workplace or disasters.
I believed the time had come for me to use my experience to raise awareness about the importance of improving mental health benefits in the workplace.
But a very practical concern kept me in my corporate job and on the payroll: I needed the medical insurance coverage my employer provided. Until the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, I was one of many employees considered to be “job locked,” those who remain in jobs they do not enjoy, find satisfying, or want to continue doing because they fear losing their health care coverage. The “job locked” are stifled from starting their own businesses, retiring, or pursuing any number of other interests that could improve society and the economy.
Employers have always had a love/hate relationship with “job locked” employees. Companies intentionally use excellent medical benefits as an effective strategy for retaining good employees. Knowing that important, productive employees might stay at their jobs for no reason other than their need for insurance coverage doesn’t bother employers. A retention tool is a retention tool. On the other hand, employers loath the fact that the same strategy also tends to retain poor job performers.
I consider myself a productive person, and I wanted to pursue a different professional course using the experience I’d gained over a long, successful HR career. In my case, the ACA gave me the freedom to resign from my job knowing I’d be able to purchase medical care coverage through Covered California. As a result, I’ve been able to work as a speaker and trainer on the critical topic of improving mental health in the workplace, something I would never have been able to do without the ACA.
Before policymakers act in haste to repeal the Affordable Care Act, I hope they will weigh the positive effects of the law on mitigating job lock.