OHS Canada Magazine

It’s time to rethink mental health benefits

COVID-19 has reinforced need for adequate services for staff


The personal and business cases for better mental health benefits have caused Canadian leaders to reconsider how the mental health concerns of employees are addressed, writes Marc Avaria. (Andrii Zastrozhnov/Adobe Stock)

From stigma to support to treatment, mental health is an important conversation taking place across all levels of Canadian organizations.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, 44 per cent of employees have exhibited signs of a mental health issue in their workplace.

This alarming trend has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic where Health Canada estimates 11 million Canadians are experiencing “high levels of stress” and 2 million Canadians are experiencing “traumatic stress.”

Business leaders have taken note.

According to research commissioned by Medavie Blue Cross, over two thirds (68 per cent) of HR professionals have seen an increase in employees reporting mental health challenges.

As a result, 69 per cent of those surveyed have seen an increase in employee absenteeism, and 61 per cent have seen an increase in mental health disability claims. It is no surprise, then, that seven in 10 of those surveyed say employee expectations have increased when it comes to mental health benefits.

Rethinking benefits

Are businesses adequately meeting employee expectations? Not yet.

Our research found that only 62 per cent of small businesses adequately address the mental health needs of their employees in their current health benefits package, compared to 82 per cent and 79 per cent of medium and large businesses, respectively.

This is significant, not only for the health of employees and their families, but the financial health of the businesses they work for and the teams they work with.

Research from the Mental Health Commission of Canada finds that mental health accounts for more than $20 billion in lost productivity costs due to absenteeism and presenteeism.

Similar research from Medaca Health Group finds that mental health issues can consume up to 14 per cent of an organization’s net annual profits.

Overstaffing, temporary workers, recruitment, hiring costs and retraining are all consequences that affect the bottom line. Given current realities with the pandemic, we expect to see an even greater impact on the workforce.

The personal and business cases for better mental health benefits have caused Canadian leaders to reconsider how the mental health concerns of employees are addressed.

When asked if they are planning to invest more to support the mental health of workers, 61 per cent of small businesses, 78 per cent of medium businesses and 83 per cent of large businesses agreed. This is promising and an indication of a shift in how mental health is being addressed.

Investing in mental health

How can businesses invest to support employee mental health?

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our capacity to change, innovate and evolve is greater than ever before. Many companies have seen years of digitization happen in a few short months. Why stop there?

As businesses look to continue to improve the overall health of their organization, now is the time to talk about the redesign and delivery of health benefits.

Evaluating your ability to adequately address the mental health needs of your employees is not an easy undertaking. It takes careful thought, collective participation and time to best address the unique needs of employees.

Here are a few considerations:

Listen: A thoughtful approach to revamping your health benefits plan starts with your employees. What are their needs? Have they changed? Does your current plan address their current needs? Employee involvement is critical to organizational innovation.

Communicate: Ensure that employees are aware of the mental health resources available to them through their current plan and keep them updated on any new resources that may be introduced over time.

Learn: Health care is changing rapidly. Virtual care, for example, is providing more cost and time efficient access to expert health care. Virtual care was successfully embraced by Canadians during COVID-19, opening the door to new, technology-powered ways to consult a doctor, get treatment, receive counselling, fill a prescription and more. Understanding what options are available and how they could have a meaningful impact on the mental health of employees is key.

Empower: Consider ways to equip your employees with the tools and resources they need to take a direct and active role in their health and health care decisions — for instance, through offerings like internet-enabled cognitive behavioural therapy, online doctors and personalized medicine.

Build culture: Mental health benefits are only one piece to the puzzle. Corporate culture plays a big role in the health and well-being of employees — even virtually. Whether that’s progressive work-from-home policies or more group education sessions about mental health and wellness, consider ways to improve your corporate culture to maintain employee morale.

The pandemic has reinforced the important need for adequate mental health services.

Employee expectations are on the rise, and it will be incumbent on employers to continue to invest in the mental health and well-being of their employees.

From me to you, it is an investment with invaluable returns.

Marc Avaria is vice-president of product & disability management at Medavie Blue Cross in Toronto.