Embark upon a journey of learning and self-awareness. Many times, our mental wellbeing appears to be going well on the surface, but when you dig into how you deal with stress or conflict, you may find negative coping skills that have been formed throughout your lifetime. It is important to take the time to define your needs, wants, and purpose in life in order to be truly fulfilled and you can only identify those when you take time to analyze yourself. Many of us often push self-assessment to the side and just focus on meeting the expectations of others.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Misty Guinn.
Misty Guinn is the Director of Benefits and Wellness at Benefitfocus, where she analyzes health claims data, industry trends, and works closely with suppliers, carriers, and consultants to create and manage innovative health plan strategies for Benefitfocus associates. Misty is dedicated to helping others improve their total well-being through education, culture, relationships, and a supportive environment that embraces all the different pillars of well-being, including physical, mental/emotional, financial, social, and purpose. When creating employee benefits, communications strategies, and creative well-being engagement programs, Misty applies a consumer-centric design to help foster the foundations of a healthier workforce community.
Thank you for joining us! Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I entered the health and wellness industry in 2003 after I received my bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University in exercise science with a pre-med concentration. One of my first jobs in the industry was at the YMCA, where I worked as a YUSA project manager for the LIVESTRONG program and the diabetes prevention program. I also served as a community health director. While at the YMCA, my passion for health and wellness grew and I went on to work at RHA Health Services where I became their director of wellness and benefits. From designing, implementing, and managing benefits and wellness programs for over 5000 RHA employees, I realized that’s what I wanted to focus on — improving lives with benefits.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Making the leap from being a customer of Benefitfocus to an associate was an interesting and unique experience during my career. I had implemented the Benefitfocus software and platform, I had been a guest speaker at many of their conferences and meetings, and I was inspired by their innovation and vision for the benefits industry. When the opportunity presented itself to join the Benefitfocus team and its mission, I jumped on it!
When I first started at Benefitfocus, I’ll admit I was a bit intimidated by the idea of being a “Director of Benefits” for benefits industry professionals as it requires you to stay on your toes at all times. After quickly transitioning, one of the first projects I worked on at Benefitfocus was an initiative called “Customer #1.” The vision was to create a world-class personal experience for both our customers and our associates (our Customer #1). Customer #1 was designed with a user-first approach, increasing benefit literacy and driving better healthcare consumerism. As a result, I’ve been able to share what we’ve learned and our strategies as an industry thought leader while also serving our associates’ health and total well-being. My work on Customer #1 led to industry accolades and recognition like the EBN’s Benny Award — Judge’s Choice in 2019 and being named the Top Women in Benefit Advising in 2020.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Some may not call this “a humorous mistake,” but I definitely had a wake-up call when I first started my career in the benefits industry. I was under the impression that it was possible to become an “expert” in benefits. You hear the term “expert” and you immediately have respect and wonder how long it took that “expert” to achieve their status. However, in the benefits industry, it is not the status of being a “benefits expert” that we should all be striving for — it is the status of being a “learning expert.” We must never stop learning, reading, gathering data, and brainstorming so we can continue to positively impact people’s lives. I now always try to say that I “practice benefits” because as soon as you think you have something mastered; things will change. Whether it’s on the Hill, in the healthcare arena, or in your employees’ lives, the only constant is change. This is something I try to embrace every day and I continually strive to learn more and challenge the assumptions.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful to my mother. I watched her put herself through nursing school as a single mother with three little girls. I have always admired my mother’s determination and compassionate approach to helping those with health issues improve their lives. She taught me that you can always do more to help others and to never give up in my pursuit of serving others’ well-being. My mother is a big reason for why I am where I am today in the health and benefits space.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
My advice would be to practice what we preach. Find ways to embrace what fuels your passion and total well-being. In this industry, we are constantly fighting for our employees’ health and balance, but sometimes it can be at the expense of our own. If we are responsible for improving peoples’ lives with benefits, then we must be the role models and “walk the walk,” while still fulfilling our purpose in both our professional and personal lives.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
My #1 piece of advice to leaders who want to foster a great work culture is to always challenge your assumptions and use employee feedback to drive your human-centered design. There is never a one-size-fits-all approach, and what works for one company will most likely not work for another. One of my favorite sayings is to “diagnose before you prescribe” because many times people will rush in to start implementing cookie-cutter solutions that don’t meet their employees where they are in their lives. Lastly, I’d recommend that when you ask for employee feedback, actually use that information in your strategy and communications — you will achieve better employee buy-in because you are building from a place of trust and authenticity.
Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?
1 — Embark upon a journey of learning and self-awareness. Many times, our mental wellbeing appears to be going well on the surface, but when you dig into how you deal with stress or conflict, you may find negative coping skills that have been formed throughout your lifetime. It is important to take the time to define your needs, wants, and purpose in life in order to be truly fulfilled and you can only identify those when you take time to analyze yourself. Many of us often push self-assessment to the side and just focus on meeting the expectations of others.
2 — Start the conversations. We are still trying to overcome the stigma of mental health in the workplace, but also in our personal homes and families. It is important to have conversations with your loved ones and with your colleagues. Share with them where you are struggling or might need some extra help and support. In order to be successful at any type of goal, one of the best practices is to share it with others. So if you are wanting to improve your mental wellbeing, start the conversation with those that can support you and hold you accountable to self-care and balance.
3 — Come to terms with professional help. As we continue working to overcome the stigma of mental health issues, we have to also embrace the fact that for many, even those with seemingly good mental health, seeking professional help from a provider may be the best next step. Many employers are starting to intentionally include mental health benefits in their overall health plan designs and options, and many even offer a free employee-assistance program (EAP) for confidential counseling and referrals. There is no weakness in seeking help and it is not cheating to take a medication that will help improve the quality of your life. Many of these outdated stereotypes are still alive and well throughout our multi-generational workforce, and we must fight them with courage and the power of knowledge.
4 — Make it part of your everyday routine and schedule. I think it is important to intentionally schedule activities during your day that will foster a healthier wellbeing. For some people it could be engaging in a mindfulness practice first thing in the morning, while for others it could be creating an organized to-do list to reduce the stress of a busy day. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to any type of wellbeing activity, but it is important to find what works for you and make it a priority.
5 — Disconnect. This might seem like a crazy notion, but we are living in a digitally saturated world and it has only gotten worse during a global pandemic and quarantine. Many of us might be sitting at computer screens all day to just move to a phone or TV in the evenings. Not only does this impact our physical health due to sitting all day, but the content being consumed can be detrimental to our sense of safety and security. From the continuous news on COVID-19 to the highly charged political environment — we are being bombarded with messages that can tear down even the strongest mentally healthy person. We must make the active choice to disconnect so that we may reconnect with our thoughts, feelings and mental wellbeing.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
There are so many studies about retirement and mental health, where one is highlighting how retirement can improve mental wellbeing to those showing the sharp increase in depression, anxiety, and even death within a couple of years after retiring. The latter highlights issues such as identity disruption and loss of meaningful engagement with others, along with financial strain and chronic health issues. In order to combat any of the possible downhill effects from retirement, it is important to start planning and saving as early as possible. Once your financial wellbeing is in check, it opens the door to focus on building your social network and self-purpose outside of your job title and field of expertise. The key to optimizing your mental health in retirement is going to be finding connection and belonging in the post-retirement world.
How about teens and pre-teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre-teens to optimize their mental wellness?
The teen and pre-teen demographic worries me the most. As a mother of a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old, our current environment with virtual learning, school sports being cancelled, the usual rites of passage, and life milestones not able to be celebrated, I fear we are facing a huge wave of mental-health issues bubbling just under the surface. In fact, data is already emerging around increased suicide rates and the ripple effects of PTSD from this pandemic. I feel it is important that we create trusted resource centers for parents to become more aware of their children’s issues and provide frictionless ways for families to reach out for help. To engage teens and pre-teens who may be suffering from mental health issues, it is critical to meet them where they are — on their phones, on social media, and on their video game consoles. There are many apps coming into the market to help people improve sleep, create positive thought tracks and call out for help when you need it. We have to make sure that the door is always open and that these teens are being met without judgement or consequence.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Peter Fuda is the author of Leadership Transformed, and he also spoke at one of Benefitfocus’ One Place Conferences. One of his main messages throughout the book is that “in order to set a higher standard, you must be a role model first and preach second.” This statement was the spark for us to create the Customer #1 initiative of becoming the ‘Gold Standard’ for how to fully optimize and realize the potential of the products, services, and platform opportunities in the benefits industry.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My movement to bring good to the most amount of people would be to give a voice to the healthcare consumer. I recently read a book by Dr. Marty Makary, The Price We Price, What Broke American Healthcare and How to Fix It, and it got me fired up over the predatory billing practices and the lack of price transparency in the healthcare field. We need to better prepare people to actually be consumers of healthcare by giving them a voice to ask for prices from medical providers, while also equipping those providers with the tools they need to drive honest and competitive pricing. The continuous climb in healthcare spending impacts everyone in our society, and I want to help people navigate this confusing system and change the status quo so people can more easily get the quality care they need. I strongly feel that financial burden should be considered a medical complication.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I am a big fan of Brene Brown. From her books to her podcasts, I have her quotes and little nuggets of brilliance all over my home office, my social media, and in my everyday speak. It is hard to pick just one quote from Brene so I will leave you with two (I have one of them engraved on a bracelet for a daily reminder):
“Do not try to win over the haters, you are not a jackass whisperer”
“It takes courage to say yes to rest and play, in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol.”
These lessons are about embracing your authentic self and to let the loudest voice in your head be your own, which is something I feel I need reminding of on a daily basis. Furthermore, as a professional woman in our work culture, we pride ourselves on never stopping and always being heads down to achieve our goals and objectives, which we are then rewarded for with professional accolades and job titles. These quotes are reminders to stop and remember that when you take the time to rest and play, you actually come back stronger — which is a big step forward for anyone!
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Twitter — https://twitter.com/guinnmisty