Therapy has helped countless people cope with stress, face life challenges, and manage mental health issues. At a time when the demand for therapy is greater than ever, though, it can be very expensive and hard to access. This is one area where union membership can confer benefits—but what are they, and how might they help the individual seeking therapy?
Few people are more qualified to answer these questions than Janet B. Gerhard. In her role as Director of Public and Community Relations, Gerhard is a resource to unions on the workplace issues that uniquely affect their members’ mental health and wellbeing. Whether it’s a hostile work environment, sexual harassment, or unsafe conditions, she helps union members access the job-protected mental health treatments and supports that they need to navigate these challenges. In a recent interview, Gerhard shared some insights into how union membership can help make regular therapy more possible, as well as the mental health benefits of being a union member.
Affording Therapy Through Work – How Unions Help
For most people, affording more than a few sessions of therapy is only possible through work and an employer’s health insurance plan. Still, some employers’ plans provide robust mental health benefits—others, not so much. A union can secure more generous mental health benefits by bargaining for insurance, Gerhard said. Here’s how she described the process:
Everyone has the misconception that the insurance is billed for treatment and therapy is provided by the union. The reality is that the union bargains for insurance. The employer provides for insurance. The union makes sure that it’s viable and meets the needs of its members.
What might this mean for an employee’s ability to afford therapy through work? For starters, it may mean a lower co-pay for individual therapy sessions or no co-pay at all. What follow are more tips and advice from Gerhard for accessing therapy as a union member.
Understand Union Mental Health Benefits Are Better
If you’re a union member seeking therapy but wondering how to afford it, “you probably have a great insurance policy that’s been negotiated by your union executive board,” according to Gerhard. This knowledge that union mental health benefits tend to be better can be reassuring at the start of a search for a therapist.
“The key is with chronic disease, like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and co-pays,” Gerhard said. “What I hear is that the pay structure is the real key to keeping chronic care affordable.”
PPO Plans vs. HMO Plans
A PPO plan is the way to go “if you’re someone with a chronic disease,” Gerhard said. She acknowledged that this might seem counter-intuitive when HMO’s are supposed to be about “health maintenance.” Actually, though, HMOs “are a way for companies to save money, so many unions bargain for PPO policies—but companies have to pay more for that.”
Behavioral Health Resources in Unions
Supplementary Insurance Policies
Sometimes unions offer supplementary insurance policies that increase behavioral health options for members. Gerhard referenced the BBS Corporation, which offers care options to those with chronic mental health conditions and “is widely used through Amalgamated Transit Union.”
Unions’ Health and Wellness Program
Some members may not be aware that their union has a health and wellness committee. Gerhard said she often is asked to speak to these groups on topics like understanding the signs of a behavioral health condition. These committees are well-informed about the insurance policies they negotiate. They also know “how to recognize a member who may be struggling and needs a therapeutic intervention.” And “they have a much stronger appeal to union members, because they work confidentially.”
Reasonable Accommodations Negotiated by Union
Reasonable work accommodations may be granted through the Americans with Disabilities Act. Gerhard said, “Union reps often stand with their members to seek reasonable accommodation based on physical and mental issues.” She cited the example of a woman who was being bullied at work. In her case, a reasonable accommodation was having her desk moved to be within view of her supervisor. Similarly, if a mental health disability requires regular therapy sessions, one reasonable accommodation might be a flexible work schedule that enables regular therapy.
Common Questions About Starting Therapy Through Work
Gerhard also addressed some of the commonly asked questions about starting therapy in a job.
- Should you discuss this with your employer? “No, absolutely not,” Gerhard said. Why? Here’s how Gerhard answered that:
Discussing your need for behavioral health assistance is best done confidentially with a trusted union rep. The union is there to protect you and your job. That would be a very difficult conversation to have with your employer, unfortunately, because we’ve not been able to remove the stigma of mental health. If we treated mental health the same as physical health, we could tell our employer—much in the same way that we might mention we have a hurt foot. Because these [mental health] issues are still bound by stigma, shame, and guilt, we’re limited in discussions.
- What are some of the typical offerings they may have for a variety of conditions? These are “all driven by insurance” and whether it is “union-driven vs. employer-driven insurance,” Gerhard said. Here again she emphasized that union-negotiated benefits “often cost the company more money” because they’re better.
- Is your job at risk for seeking therapy? “Your job is at risk if your need for therapy is impacting the workplace and if you’re actively exhibiting behaviors in the workplace that suggest you need a therapeutic intervention,” Gerhard said. She added that “therapy itself is not the problem.”
- What if a situation has arisen where you need to disclose that you are receiving therapy and are concerned about your job security? Gerhard recommended treating the conversation “as if you are facing a disciplinary conversation” and asking a union rep to come along. She invoked the Weingarten Act from 1974. It guarantees unionized employees the right to union representation during a disciplinary or investigatory interview.
In addition to the Weingarten Act, Gerhard cited the HIPAA Act of 1996 (“Health Insurance Portability and Accountability”), which protects private medical information. She said these federal laws are important protections to remember and, if necessary, cite in sensitive conversations with an employer. Gerhard even gave this example of what to say if you’re a union member: “If this discussion could in any way lead to my being disciplined or terminated or affect my personal working conditions, I request that my union representative officer be present at this meeting.”
Union membership includes better benefits and more support when you’re addressing work-related stress and related issues. This can improve your mental and physical wellbeing, by empowering good self-care and healthy lifestyle choices like therapy.
For more information about the treatments available for a specific mental health concern, contact us today.