North State SHRM News & Legal Updates
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Talking about suicide does not need to be taboo.
Mental Health America’s 2019 “The State of Mental Health” report has some concerning statistics. While adult prevalence of mental illness has been relatively constant, suicidal ideation, or suicidal thoughts, has increased from 3.77 percent in 2012 to 4.19 percent in 2017.
“That’s over 10.3 million adults in the U.S. with serious thoughts of suicide,” the report noted. Meanwhile, more than 10 million adults in the U.S. have an unmet need for mental health treatment.
Companies should understand how suicide could impact not only a person’s family and loved ones, but also their co-workers, clients and everyone around them, said Ali Payne, practice leader for organizational wellbeing at insurance brokerage Holmes Murphy.
“I think the way we make sure people feel connected is having a strategic relationship with leaders and having leaders be open about how it impacts them or how they do business,” Payne said. She suggested creating a work environment where open conversations are encouraged.
Leaders should educate themselves of the available resources and prepare themselves if a mental health crisis happens, she said.
Suicide is a significant public health issue both in the United States and worldwide. Between 1999 and 2016, suicide rates have increased in every state in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Further, the World Health Organization estimates that one person dies of suicide every 40 seconds worldwide.
“Our Global Suicide Crisis,” a 2019 report from Prudential, notes that while it’s understood that depression and anxiety can be precursors to suicide, there isn’t yet enough known about the many reasons behind suicide to prevent it. Still, addressing depression and anxiety can help.
One way to address mental health in the workplace is by adopting best practices such as telehealth for behavioral health and on-site mental health clinicians, the report notes. It also stressed that when an employee takes time off to deal with a mental health episode, managers should remain in contact with them. “This may not only help an employee through depression — it can also reduce their fear of returning to work,” the report noted.
Workplace benefits and policies like this are valuable, Payne said, but employers and managers can also learn about accessible community-based resources that address mental health. These resources include mental health services provided by and crisis hotlines, government organizations, state-based organizations and local hospitals and health providers.
“A lot of employers don’t always know what those resources are, and they sometimes take them for granted until they’re impacted by [a mental health crisis],” Payne said. “Then they might take the initiative to figure out what those resources are. But I always say, let’s be as proactive as we can and really try to get a handle on what [these resources] are even outside of what we’re buying today.”
Co-workers can also benefit from guidance in learning how to address what they think may be a mental health crisis in a colleague. It may not be a comfortable situation, Payne said, but part of the training she does for clients is based around understanding how to help struggling colleagues.
One work reality that may impact an employee’s mental health is rising productivity expectations, Payne said. “Right now we’re all asking our people to do more with less,” she added, saying that employees are more often wearing many hats and pitching in wherever the company needs them. “We need to make sure we’re thinking about how workload impacts people.”
Even though employers understandably want employees to be their most productive selves, that’s difficult for an employee when they are having mental health problems. It’s an added stress as well if they still feel workplace pressure to be at maximum productivity even when they’re not feeling good, Payne said.
“If they’re feeling like this, they’re definitely not going to bring their whole self to work. They’ll leave a majority of what they need and what they want somewhere else,” she said.
She also suggests that team leaders learn to help people recognize when they’re not feeling 100 percent and when they need to take a break.
“We can’t just say that mental health affects everyone the same way,” Payne said. Financial stress may negatively impact one person’s mental health while career stress may cause a similar reaction in someone else. There isn’t one simple solution to address this workplace issue.
“There’s no silver bullet to anything, and that’s what everyone wants,” she said. “Everyone wants this silver bullet that’s going to solve all the problems in mental health, like stress management.”
While stress management programs have some value, stress impacts everyone differently. People can improve their resiliency, but even so they may not be as resilient of a person as someone else, Payne said. Some people are just more resilient than others. Simply investing in programs meant to increase employees’ resiliency is not enough to address stress and mental health, she said.
Payne encourages her clients to consider all the resources they have at their disposal that can be impactful to different people with different needs who are struggling.
“It doesn’t mean that they’re struggling all the way to suicide,” Payne said. “It might just mean they’re struggling in general. How do we make it OK to not be OK?”
Further national, state and local resources:
Through continuous education, you can become legislative subject matter experts and compliance leaders. By setting goals and committing to a disciplined approach to educating ourselves, then utilizing a variety of SHRM competencies to do so, HR professionals can stay on top of evolving laws and regulations that affect the workplace.
Poor mental health can have a devastating impact on businesses and of course the employees themselves. Mental health disorders are becoming more common and given that we spend upwards of eight hours a day in the workplace, it’s time employers start to take accountability. Office furniture suppliers, DBI Furniture asked over 2,000 people if they felt… View Article
About 10 years ago a light bulb went off for me that, as an HR professional, I had a crucial impact on the organization’s cybersecurity posture.
I was talking with a colleague in information security, and one of the main themes across our discussion was people. This theme encompassed HR-related topics such as the information security team we were trying to hire, develop, motivate and retain; our organizational security culture and employee behaviors; HR policies and practices that intersected with security activities; and my role as a leader and cybersecurity advocate in the organization.
This conversation, and many subsequent ones, were eye-opening for me. I quickly realized that if I was not part of the cybersecurity solution then I would be part of the problem. As a leader, this was a real-world example of how organizational silos could prevent mission-critical collaboration across core business functions. I refused to be part of the problem and wanted to be part of the solution.
HR colleagues have asked, “Doesn’t cybersecurity seem outside of your swim lane?” “Don’t you have enough HR related activities to keep you busy?” and “What will the executives or investors think if you are spending time on cybersecurity and not HR?”
Yes, trust me, there are many days where I have my own HR fires to put out. However, when a cybersecurity event does occur I will know that I’ve done all that I can to protect the organization.
In addition to being a partner and advocate of cybersecurity, HR must also be a protector of sensitive company data, personally identifiable information and protected health information. Over the last decade, HR has been the target of several dedicated cyber-attacks (GoldenEye, Gameover ZeuS) and countless malicious social engineering attempts. We play a crucial role in the data management lifecycle – the creation, storage, use, distribution, archival and disposal of information.
October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, which was launched by the National Cyber Security Alliance and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in October 2004. The theme for 2019 is “Own IT. Secure IT. Protect IT.”– helping to encourage personal accountability and proactive behavior in digital privacy, security best practices, common cyber threats and cybersecurity careers.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology-National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education Working Group has published a guide called “Cybersecurity is Everyone’s Job.” This is a tremendous resource for professionals across all domains, from IT, HR, finance, marketing, leadership and beyond. We all must do our part to “Own IT. Secure IT. Protect IT.”
Over the last two years I’ve had the honor of serving as NIST National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education Working Group Co-Chair for Industry. This group of individuals from government, academia and industry is constantly striving to create ways to not just make people aware of cybersecurity but to get everyone involved. Kick off the NCSAM by reviewing the “Cybersecurity is Everyone’s Job.” For additional information please see the links below.
COBRA benefits provide continued group health plan coverage after certain qualifying events, like termination of employment, and are a health care safety net for employees until benefits from a new job kick in.
But for employers, staying compliant with COBRA regulations can be difficult. Sure, COBRA — the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act health insurance program that allows an eligible employee and their dependents the continued benefits of health insurance coverage — is for employees who no longer work at your company.
Since you might think of them as long gone, complying with COBRA might not be a priority. However, any employee who leaves on bad terms may be more likely to file a lawsuit against an organization if it mishandles COBRA. In fact, employers have recently seen an increase in the number of COBRA lawsuits filed against them for leaving out required information.
Outside of litigious former employees, COBRA is generally confusing to comply with and can carry heavy penalties for employers. These can add up — courts can assess up to a $110 per day penalty for each deficient COBRA notice per person.
Here are some commonly overlooked details.
Not understanding if your organization is subject to COBRA; not understanding eligibility. First, it’s important to understand which employers have to offer COBRA. The federal law says that employers with at least 20 employees in the prior calendar year must offer COBRA coverage starting the day employer-sponsored group health plan coverage ends. COBRA coverage can last up to 18 months under typical circumstances, or 36 months if certain events occur, e.g., the employee becomes entitled to Medicare, gets divorced or dies.
But it’s not enough just to follow the federal law. Employers often overlook that states can also mandate that group health plans offer continuation coverage much like COBRA — called “mini-COBRA” laws — that typically affect smaller employers and provide greater benefits to employees than the federal COBRA law. For example, the New York “mini-COBRA” law mandates 36 months of continued coverage for employers with fewer than 20 employees. In New Jersey, with some exceptions, the state’s mini-COBRA law applies to employers that employ between 2 and 50 eligible employees, and provides employees with:
Many other states have continuing coverage laws in place as well. And as if understanding the state and federal laws that apply to your employees isn’t enough (and, it can be especially difficult if your employees live in multiple states) — there are also time-sensitive deadlines you must meet in order to stay in compliance with COBRA laws.
Not Complying with Notice Guidelines
One issue that’s landed some employers in hot water is failing to send notifications, or not including the right information in these notifications. Let’s start with the basics—employers that sponsor group health plans must send an “initial notice” or “general rights notice” to covered employees and their covered spouses within 90 days of the date that coverage under the plan starts or, if later, the date that is 90 days after the date when the plan first becomes subject to COBRA.
In addition, and with some exceptions, once an employee separates from the company, the plan administrator (or employer, if the employer and plan administrator are the same entity) must send a COBRA “election notice” within 14 days of receiving notice of a qualifying event, such as being terminated from employment or leaving the company. This notice describes the employee’s rights to elect COBRA.
For both types of COBRA notices, the penalty for not doing this (i.e., in addition to the potential litigation costs) is up to $110 per day.
The Department of Labor outlines exactly what should be included in these notices and even supplies templates called “model notices” to help employers comply with these guidelines.
Not Understanding What’s Covered
COBRA allows employees to pay for the same group health plan coverage they enjoyed during employment — but at their own expense. Unless the employer agrees to pay for all or a part of the COBRA premium, employees are responsible for the full premium amount (plus a 2 percent administration fee). Under COBRA, the term “group health plan” coverage is defined broadly, and includes medical coverage and, depending on plan design, could also include prescription, vision and dental coverage. Life insurance, long-term care insurance and other similar types of insurance aren’t considered “medical coverage” and aren’t included in COBRA.
Health reimbursement accounts, or HRAs, qualify as group health plans, so employees must still offer reimbursement for their expenses under COBRA. Health FSAs are generally included within the definition of “group health plan” and are subject to COBRA, unless the account is “overspent” as of the date of the qualifying event. In such cases, an employer’s COBRA obligations are more limited.
COBRA, Severances and Mergers
One frequently asked question is how COBRA works with severance packages. It’s not uncommon for employers to pay employees’ COBRA health insurance premiums on a pretax basis for a few months as part of a severance package. But if the employee is considered “highly compensated” by the IRS, and the employer’s health insurance plan is self-insured, the employee may be subject to paying tax on COBRA coverage as required under certain nondiscrimination rules under Section 105(h) of the Internal Revenue Code, which generally require that a self-insured employer can’t discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees. Employers can avoid this issue by paying the employee for their COBRA premium on an after-tax basis.
Another point of confusion is how COBRA is administered during a company merger or acquisition.
There are a number of issues to consider, including what type of acquisition, sale or merger a business goes through, and the employee’s status as a result of that event. These factors determine which entity in the M&A deal pays for COBRA, and which employees are eligible unless the parties to the deal have memorialized these terms in their relevant asset purchase or stock purchase agreement.
How to Stay Compliant
Managing COBRA properly can be onerous. Often employers fall into one of three categories when it comes to administering COBRA benefits:
Harrison Newman is vice president and benefits consultant for Corporate Synergies.
When I work with executives and managers, a common complaint I hear about HR professionals is, “They don’t listen. They just tell.” So when I work with HR professionals, I encourage them to adopt these three practices of active listening.