Employee mental health has continued to be a priority issue for employers. Not only do you genuinely care about your employees, but there are real financial costs to employee mental health concerns; for example lower productivity, worsening morale, higher turnover, and more leaves of absences.
Actuarial Analytics has seen first firsthand the growing impact of mental health challenges on employees and businesses across Canada. In this blog, we’ll explore proactive strategies that employers and plan sponsors can implement to better support their employees’ mental well-being. Often employers get 90% there but don’t know how to close that remaining gap.
Table of Contents
- Understanding Employee Mental Health in Canada
- Blue-Coloured Glasses: Mental Illness Affects Cognition
- Canadian Health Care is Not Optimized for Mental Health
- Closing the Gap in Workplace Mental Health
- Create a Stigma-Free Workplace Culture
- Tailor Employee Benefits for Mental Health
- Offer Flexible Work Arrangements
- Promote Work-Life Balance
- The Crucial Last Step: Make it Easy to Access Resources
- Measuring Progress
Understanding Employee Mental Health in Canada
Mental health concerns – such as stress, anxiety, and depression – affect a significant portion of the Canadian workforce. The latest statistics from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health indicate the vast prevalence of mental illness:
In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental illness
By the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have – or have had – a mental illness
Recognizing the signs and understanding the nuances of these challenges is the first step towards effective support.
Blue-Coloured Glasses: Mental Illness Affects Perception and Cognition
When an employee is experiencing a mental health concern, they are likely struggling. Struggling at home, in their relationships, and yes, struggling at work. They may or may not be aware of the scope of their challenges and whether there is help available. Even if they are fully aware of available resources, their ability to navigate through the system is limited by their illness.
Research shows that depression and other mental health challenges are often associated with cognitive dysfunction. This matters for employers because it impacts their employees’ ability to solve problems, pay attention, learn, remember information, and work quickly. Employees currently experiencing mental health challenges are less productive, less engaged, less able to navigate resources, and more likely to take costly leaves of absences.
Canadian Health Care is Not Optimized for Mental Health
Public health care options for mental health are limited.
People may turn to their family doctor or a walk-in clinic, but despite a great deal of evidence to show that therapy and adjacent solutions like exercise are as effective (or in some cases more effective!) than medication, most frontline doctors and nurse practitioners are unable to support beyond a prescription. Referrals to specialists such as psychiatrists typically have long wait times, and many psychiatrists still favour a medication-first approach.
Psychologists (and other mental health professionals like social workers and therapists) are unable to prescribe medication and so use effective, evidence-based therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). However, most psychologist services are not covered by public health care funding, such as OHIP. Instead, many people rely on their employer’s group benefits plan for coverage to pay for psychological services.
Depressingly, according to Benefits Canada’s research, only about half of group benefits plan members say their employer effectively helps them manage mental health conditions, well behind the 75 per cent of plan sponsors that say the same. Ten per cent of members didn’t know, leaving 40 per cent who felt their employer doesn’t effectively support their mental health.
Closing the Gap in Workplace Mental Health
Now for the good news: there are many things that employers can do to support employee mental health. And many employers are taking steps to better support employees who are experiencing mental illness.
Read below for a broad list of employer mental health-supportive initiatives, including several that many employers aren’t doing effectively.
Create a Stigma-Free Environment
When employees suffer in silence, it reduces the likelihood of an employer being able to quickly connect them with resources and services. Creating a workplace culture supportive of mental health helps employees get the help they need.
Promote Open Conversations: Normalize discussing mental health openly by demonstrating openness from the top of the organization down. Work with managers to create safe spaces where employees can share their thoughts and experiences without fear of judgment.
Training and Awareness: Provide mental health awareness training to managers and employees. Equip them with the knowledge to recognize signs of distress and how to offer support. For instance, Mental Health First Aid Canada offers 1–2-day courses and workplace programs.
Stigma Reduction Campaigns: Launch year-round stigma-reduction campaigns to foster a culture where seeking help for mental health is not seen as a weakness but as a sign of strength. Bell Let’s Talk Day has done a lot to raise awareness of speaking about mental health, but don’t just leave this to a one-day event.
Tailor Employee Benefits for Mental Health
While employers overall have been increasing mental health coverage the last few years, Benefits Canada reports that over 60 per cent of employers cap mental health coverage at $1,000 or less per year.
Sufficient Mental Health Coverage: Ensure your benefits plan offers comprehensive coverage for mental health services, including therapy and counseling, diagnosis, and medications. If your plan has a pooled annual maximum for all types of extended health care, consider creating a separate coverage amount specifically for mental health. There are also specific coverages related to supporting neurodiverse employees.
Telehealth Options: Consider adding telehealth options for virtual consultations with mental health professionals, making it easier for employees to access care without leaving home or missing work. Several insurance carriers have a virtual health offering, and there are several carrier agnostic solutions as well, such as Maple and TELUS Health Virtual Care.
Measurable Wellness Programs: While many employers implement a wellness program that includes initiatives for stress management, mindfulness, and work-life balance, it’s important to ensure that these initiatives are producing a meaningful outcome. Be sure to add wellness initiatives alongside workplace policies and procedures that reflect the employer’s genuine commitment to employee well-being. Regularly gathering feedback from employees about wellness programs can help ensure that programs are truly valuable. Not measuring the impact of your wellness programs yet? Consider creating a dashboard that integrates data from your insurance carrier, wellness and EAP providers.
Enhanced Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): Offer enhanced EAPs to not only provide immediate support and resources to employees facing mental health challenges (the traditional “short-term counseling model”), but to also assist them after they receive a diagnosis and are beginning the road to recovery (the “Enhanced EAP model”).
Benefits for DEI: Conduct a DEI audit to ensure that your plan is set up to support the mental health needs of diverse employees.
Offer Flexible Work Arrangements
Remote Work: Allow flexible work arrangements, including remote work, to accommodate employees’ needs, reducing stress associated with commuting or office environments. Make in-office days purposeful, with plenty of planned face-to-face time with colleagues and managers.
Flexible Hours: Permit flexible working hours, so employees can better manage their mental health by adapting their schedules.
Promote Work-Life Balance
Vacation Policies: Encourage employees to take their allotted vacation time to relax, recharge, and reduce burnout.
Limit Overtime: Implement policies that restrict excessive overtime, helping to prevent burnout-related sources of stress. Work with employees to manage expectations around the amount of work that’s possible in the average work week.
The Crucial Last Step: Make it Easy to Access Resources
Many employers do the due diligence to find and implement good mental health services for employees, but don’t adequately communicate the available resources and how to access them. The irony is that, as more programs are added, employees don’t know where to go, especially when mental health challenges lower their capacity to seek out information and support.
If you’ve done 90% of the work towards fully supporting employee mental health, the last 10% is arguably the most important. You now need to close gap by mapping out the available mental health resources and making the path to access as smooth as possible.
Regularly assess the effectiveness of your mental health initiatives through employee surveys, feedback mechanisms, and utilization reports. This data will guide adjustments to better address employee needs.
Supporting employee mental health is not just a moral obligation but also a strategic investment in your organization’s success. As employers and plan sponsors, it’s our responsibility to create a workplace where employees can thrive, both personally and professionally. By implementing these proactive strategies and continually prioritizing employee mental health, you’ll not only see a happier and healthier workforce but also witness the positive impact on your business’s bottom line.
Spotlight On: Canadian Bank Note's Approach to Supporting Their Employees' Mental Health & Wellness
Our client, Canadian Bank Note (CBN), is very thoughtful in designing their approach to mental health. They hired Actuarial Analytics to assist them in evaluating proposals from wellness vendors, virtual care providers, and enhanced EAP solutions. Once they selected best in class providers that aligned with their culture, they needed a way to ensure employees know where to go depending on where they are on the mental health continuum.
We collaborated with the CBN team during their May Wellness Month to create a custom CBN-branded communication. This communication is given to all existing and new employees to help them access all the fantastic mental health resources that CBN makes available to employees and their families.