As the world faces a global reckoning of inequality sparked by an amalgam of catastrophes that have occurred over the last few years (the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the overturning of Roe V. Wade, to name a few), the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging (DEIAB) have become the linchpin—if not the focus—of many an organization’s talent strategy, as they strive to retain talent amidst a labor shortage riddled with equally restless and empowered workers who are prepared and willing to leave if their employer does not invest in them.
While this largely applies to the structure and culture of the workplace, so, too, does it apply to the breadth of support that an organization offers to its employees. It’s what’s given way to the rise of employee resource groups over the last few years, as well as to the rise in childcare and eldercare services, telehealth, and digital health solutions—even to remote, hybrid, and flexible work options. More organizations than ever before are recognizing that what they had in place to support their workforce isn’t enough, or, in other words, isn’t accessible or beneficial to all of their employees.
And—thankfully—many of them are deciding to do something about it, including—among many other things—investing in wellbeing programs that provide culturally competent, sensitive, affirming, and personalized—or rather, specialized—care. And it’s in regard to that final characteristic that more wellbeing programs have begun to fortify the range of support that they can offer through specialisms.
“There are a lot of organizations out there right now who want to make sure that their people are getting what they need and that their wellbeing program is not so generic that it doesn’t speak to them,” Mary Ellen Gornick, Senior Vice President of Global Services here at WPO, explains. “So, we do have to emphasize and do a better job on how our services can help everyone,” she says, “and one of the ways in which we can do that is through our specialisms.”
So, what exactly is a specialism?
In the context of counseling, specialisms are specific care categories or “niches” that a care provider has substantial expertise on or experience in to provide expert-level care to individuals seeking treatment for those particular issues. As Gornick explains: “There are some unique things that impact the individual to such an extent that, when it comes to counseling—naturally—many people will go, ‘but you really have to understand my viewpoint.’ Take veterans for example: it’s like, ‘We gave X number of years out of our lives to serve and protect, so we should get some recognition, some priority, something more than just being able to board the plane first.’ I think every group goes through that and has a legitimate ask: ‘see me; hear me; pay attention to me.'”
While veterans and those struggling with substance use disorders were among the first to be targeted by “specialist care,” such as through reintegration and rehabilitation programs, common specialisms offered today cover a wide expanse of issues, including, but not limited to:
- API issues
- Adolescent issues
- BIPOC issues
- Domestic violence
- Eating disorders
- LGBTQIA+ issues
- Religion/faith-based issues
- Trauma; and
- Women’s issues
Of course, there are some legal and ethical restrictions when it comes to setting someone up with a counselor who is an “exact match” or has exactly their lived experience, as Andrew Maher, WPO’s Director of Clinical Service Delivery – Europe, notes.
“The challenge is that nobody has a right to ask anybody what their sexuality is, what their religion is, what their political stance is, and so on,” he explains, “and so the way we manage that is, when we’re credentialing all our providers that are on our network, on our application form we have a list of areas that they can choose from if they have a particular interest in working on certain cases or have particular expertise or experience working on those cases. That is the work-around that we have.”
What this means, he goes on to say, is that “when someone calls in looking for a provider that’s familiar with transgender concerns, they may or may not get connected to a transgender counselor, but they will get connected to a counselor who is familiar and emphatic about those concerns.”
“That’s really what specialisms are all about,” Alexandria Bartels, Senior Sales Consultant at WPO, adds. “It’s about trying to understand what it is counselors have more experience or more desire to support people with. We’re all about making sure that we speak to all our clients’ employees’ needs and locate the right person to connect them with.”
And that’s really important, especially in today’s heavily fragmented world, where people belonging to specific groups may feel like their needs are overlooked or unaddressed by a particular mainstream. This has especially historically been the case for BIPOC individuals, for example, who were largely if not completely left out of early research that led to the culmination of what is now modern-day psychotherapy, and who have also been unjustly subjected to discriminatory and other harmful mistreatment at the hands of culturally incompetent mental health professionals.
With the help of a specialist at their disposal, employees from these more marginalized groups can be rest assured that they are looked out for by their employer’s wellbeing program, and feel empowered to not only access these services, but to feel comfortable doing so. As Gornick explains, “I think that the ‘personalized piece’ that specialisms provide is not only about catering to who you are and what you need, but I think there’s another layer of that which is also about how comfortable you are accessing those services.”
Benefits of Specialisms
That said, in addition to increased utilization of these services, some of the benefits that specialisms bring to an organization include:
- Patient-centered communication
- Expedited care
- Faster recovery times
- Lowered risk of relapse
- Reduced healthcare spending
- Improved morale; and more
As Gorkin compares them to, these specialisms are not at all unlike the medical model of specialty care: in which an individual first checks in with their primary care physician or some sort of general practitioner who asks them some questions and works to narrow down what it is they’re experiencing and what they need help with before referring them to a specialist who can provide the appropriate support.
“The real advantage of having masters-level counselors answer the phones,” she explains, “is that they’re experienced in handling a wide range of issues (like a PCP or generalist). There are some times when you need to get into specialty care, but in terms of sort of those basic mental health concerns, they can handle that. They can handle it to the point where they’re able to identify if you need to move beyond their care and see a specialist.”
Something to Keep in Mind
To that point, Gorkin cautions that specialisms are not meant to replace or downplay the efficiency of general counseling. “I think ultimately the other thing about these specialisms is that, just like you’ve got to have faith in your primary care physician, you’ve got to have faith in your counselor that they can get you what you need. That’s the core of personalization. It’s like how you go to your primary care physician for anything, you can go to any one of these counselors for anything as well.”
“Whenever clients will ask us if we have the resources available to support their workforce’s specific needs,” Bartels adds, “our response has always been that a counselor is a counselor, and they are trained and have the ability to talk to anybody about anything because there are certain truths, certain internal or external experiences that are universal.'” In that sense, specialisms are there for further support, to drive continuity and consistency of the effective, individualized care that intake clinicians or general counselors can (and do) provide.
As Maher drives home, while specialisms are a great asset toward diversifying and equalizing the support that wellbeing programs offer to an organization’s employees, they are effectively an add-on to the comprehensive care that counselors already provide. He further adds that there are even unique benefits to speaking to a counselor outside of a specialism.
“To give an example,” he explains, “in my own personal practice, I had a female client come to me who had just had a miscarriage. In the first session they’re kind of going, ‘Oh, right, I don’t know what you’re going to know.’ I’m never going to have that lived experience. However, my curiosity around how this experience is impacting on her helped her; her explaining to me the nuances and challenges that I never experienced helped her process her emotions in a way. To say, ‘It’s not my lived experience, but I really want to know what your lived experience is so I can align better to you,’ can really help. It gives the person an opportunity to get what happened to them out of their system, and by doing so, there’s a healing that happens in that just by hearing yourself talk through things.”
Nevertheless, as employees continue to face differing and diverging realities thanks to persisting inequality, the growing digital divide, and much more, people are going to continually call in to their wellbeing programs seeking help for a wider range of experiences, and specialisms are just one of the latest solutions for ensuring that all their concerns are addressed, and that all of their needs are met.