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Talking About Hearing Loss at Work Is Getting Easier

One reason: there are more older workers these days

By Chris Farrell

Marie Saliterman, 58, was sick for a month 28 years ago. When she felt well enough to return to her administrative assistant job, she noticed she had trouble hearing and then had her hearing tested. “They told me I was like the typical 70-year-old,” Saliterman recalls. “I was 30-years-old. I refused to wear hearing aids.”

Saliterman soon changed her mind. Without hearing aids, she realized, she was missing out on too much, including at work. With a young family, she needed an income.

Still, her moderate to severe hearing loss wasn’t something she talked about at work — until she got a piece of advice that changed her thinking seven years ago. The firm she worked for at the time, in Minnesota's Twin Cities, had failed in the bad economy. Saliterman usually found jobs through referrals, but decided to take advantage of a job-search class. Its instructor encouraged her to be upfront about her hearing difficulties.

“It’s important to tell people,” Saliterman now says. She eventually landed a job as an administrative assistant at Cargill, the Minnesota-based agribusiness behemoth, which hired her knowing that she heard with difficulty. Besides hearing aids, Saliterman uses an amplified phone and offers tips to co-workers so they'll have the best chance for good communication. For instance, since she's attuned to their body language, Saliterman tells them to stand directly in front of her and within three feet.

Talking about hearing loss with her colleagues is an ongoing need, she adds. "You have to remind them," says Saliterman.

Hearing Loss at Work: Widespread and Widely Neglected

Saliterman has plenty of company — more than you may think. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders figures nearly 30 million American adults could benefit from hearing aids.

Hearing loss starts for a lot of people in the years while they’re still working. Among people ages 50 to 59, 11 percent have hearing loss. That percentage more than doubles (to nearly 25 percent) between the ages of 60 and 69. (A small but telling personal anecdote: Almost everyone I know who is 50 or older routinely avoids certain restaurants where the noise level makes it hard to carry on a conversation with a group of friends.)

But employers have not traditionally included treatment of hearing loss in their employee benefits packages, even though poor hearing affects productivity and performance. And hearing difficulties are accentuated these days with the widespread embrace by management of open-floorplan offices. Employees with hearing issues, meanwhile, often try to mask this, despite the risk of derailing their careers.

“This is the most denied physical condition that exists,” says Alison Grimes, director of audiology and newborn hearing screening at UCLA Health. “People don’t say, ‘My hearing isn’t as good as it used to be.’ They’re worried about the stigma of being considered old.”

Employers Are Changing Their Position

There is movement by employers toward a change for the better, however, thanks in part to growing recognition that the average age of workers is on the rise.

The 2016 National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans by Mercer, the global consulting firm, shows that 60 percent of the large employers surveyed (those with 5,000 employees or more) now offer some insurance coverage for hearing aids. Firms are also starting to add hearing health to their employee wellness programs, which typically include weight control, exercise and smoking cessation.

“To an increasing degree, hearing is covered by corporate health plans,” says Carole Rogin, president of the nonprofit Better Hearing Institute, the self-described “educational arm” of the Hearing Industries Association.

Dru Coleman, director of national sales and marketing for EPIC Hearing Healthcare, the nation’s largest provider of hearing benefits, says, “Hearing benefits are where vision and dental was 20 years ago. It’s coming. It’s more of an expected benefit.”

Other factors are also likely to help reduce any stigma associated with hearing loss. For an aging workforce, hearing loss is a shared experience. Advances in hearing aid technologies are making the products more effective. And the beginnings of regulatory reform should lower the cost of hearing aids and make them accessible to more people.

Look at it this way: Businesses confront many difficult workforce problems, from efforts to boost diversity to dealing with drug addiction. By comparison, employee problems associated with hearing loss should be relatively easy to address.

Better Hearing Is a Gain for Nashville’s Schools

Take the example of the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee. The Metro Nashville system added treatment of hearing loss to its employee benefits package two years ago. David Hines, director of employee benefits for the school system, attended a presentation by EPIC, which highlighted teachers as a group at high risk for hearing loss.

“I know how much noise one child makes,” Hines chuckles. “We want to have healthy teachers.”

The new hearing loss benefit was added at no additional cost to teachers by bundling it into the employee medical plan. Teachers are automatically signed up for the benefit, which fully covers a hearing exam and provides a hearing aid benefit of up to $700 per year when EPIC network providers are used. Metro Nashville’s plan covers active and retired teachers.

An additional value for the school system from the hearing benefit: It can help improve the productivity of retired teachers who return to teach part-time — a common practice.


“I would recommend the benefit,” says Hines. “I have recommended it.”

Hearing Aids are Less Visible and More Powerful

David Woodbury, who is in his early 50s and an executive at a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, started having trouble hearing his family at home and colleagues at work meetings when he was in his 40s. His hearing had deteriorated from his time in the military, attending rock concerts and the like.

Four years ago, he went to an audiologist and got hearing aids. They’re small and, from most angles, probably invisible. But Woodbury says he doesn’t care if people see them. The benefits of hearing well are simply too great.

“Hearing aids changed my life for the better,” he says. “Are they perfect? No. The bottom line for me is, to operate in life I need to hear. They enable me to work and communicate in most situations.”

Technology is helping people at work compensate for their hearing loss in a number of ways. Information technologies like email, instant messaging, text messages, Slack and other communications applications put everyone on a level field. And hearing aids have improved dramatically in recent decades. Many automatically adjust to changes in the audio environment and can be linked to Bluetooth and smartphones.

Like Woodbury’s, hearing aids are becoming less visible. “Most hearing aids today you can’t see,” says Rogin of the Better Hearing Institute.

How Many Workplace MVPs Are We Sidelining?

Unfortunately for those who rely on Medicare — or will soon — the federal health program doesn’t cover hearing loss. Long-standing efforts by hearing advocates to change that aren’t succeeding. And hearing aids aren’t cheap, ranging from $1000 to more than $4000 for each device.

However, there is a piece of good news on the legislative front: a bipartisan bill to allow over-the-counter sales of hearing aids. (Among the co-authors are Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and Republican Senator Charles Grassley, of Massachusetts and Iowa, respectively.) The legislation calls on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop standards for over-the-counter devices, a market-opening move that would increase competition, drive down hearing aid costs sharply and, therefore, boost the numbers of users.

An apt story for legislators — and managers — to consider is Larry Brown’s. Brown was a terrific running back for the Washington Redskins from 1969 to 1976. During his rookie year, critics decided Brown wouldn’t make it as a professional football player. He was too slow off the snap of the ball. Legendary coach Vince Lombardi investigated the problem and discovered that Brown was deaf in one ear. So Lombardi had a small hearing aid placed in Brown’s helmet. In 1972, Brown was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.

Now apply the Larry Brown lesson to the aging American workforce. The possibilities are enticing, aren’t they?

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Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author of the books "Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life" and "Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life." Read More
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