Two years after COVID, a renewed focus on corporate mental health efforts
By Christopher Reynolds
Over 26 months into a gruelling pandemic, with many Canadians facing the added challenge of navigating a return to the office, companies are embracing a range of approaches to help workers coping with mental health challenges. But experts say lip service remains a hazard too many boardrooms still fall back on.
An overhaul in the workplace?
A top-to-bottom shift in corporate attitude is key to easing emotional strain in the workplace, where mental health should be viewed as essential to success rather than a side note, says Denis Trottier, chief mental health officer at KPMG Canada.
“It’s changing that culture, getting away from, ‘Oh, it’s Mental Health Week, so let’s do something about mental health,’ and moving that to a culture where you put this on the agenda every day,” he said.
“The goal is not to turn you and your entire team into doctors so you can diagnose people. It’s to make tools accessible to your colleagues – to listen to you non-judgmentally and encourage you to access resources.”
How companies can take part in the solution
Corporate accountability is key. Rather than relegating mental health to a corner of human resources, large companies should dedicate a separate team to it, Trottier said.
Many have failed to refresh the mental benefits available, or to promote those that are, he said. For firms that offer employee and family assistance programs (EFAPs) – insurance coverage that can include counselling and therapy – the benefits are insufficient.
“There might be about $500 for counselling. If you’re in Toronto, that’s $225 an hour. After two sessions, what happens?” Trottier asks.
BounceBack is one online self-help program offered free of charge by the Canadian Mental Health Association for adults with moderate anxiety or depression. Online programs including MindBeacon and AbilitiCBT offer virtual therapy sessions, and are free in some provinces and covered by insurance plans in others.
Experts say the need is there, with insurers seeing an uptick in demand.
Canada Life has experienced a surge in requests for mental health coverage under its employee and family assistance programs since the pandemic began, said executive vice-president Brad Fedorchuk. The top three concerns were personal stress, workplace stress and anxiety.
While demand for EFAP services at Desjardins Group initially decreased at the start of the pandemic, activity levels proceeded to rise 20 per cent between March 2020 and February 2021. Call volumes then tripled between summer and fall, said spokesman Jean-Benoit Turcotti.
Addressing the bigger problem
Canada’s unemployment rate fell to 5.2 per cent in April, Statistics Canada reported early in the month, the lowest recorded rate since comparable data became available in 1976. Employers are under increasing pressure to retain employees in this job-seekers’ market.
Nonetheless, advocates say some employers have yet to fully accept the importance of responding to the angst, uncertainty and sense of perpetual limbo that weighs on many staff in the wake of the pandemic.
“Unlike physical health, there seems to be a lot less patience and tolerance for things that impact our mental health,” said Troy Winters, senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents more than 700,000 workers in sectors ranging from education and health care to aviation.
“Are the employers doing anything? Generally very little,” he said, arguing that necessary “holistic frameworks” are largely unimplemented.
Rather than just a company-provided gym membership or virtual yoga, tools should include mental health surveys and webinars or health and safety committees that identify points of undue stress and emotional tripwires. Equity, diversity and inclusion committees also play a role, Winters said.
Of course, less work and more cash don’t hurt either.
“Up to a certain point, it’s a positive,'” he said of workload changes. But an oversize burden or lack of flexibility, along with salary or collective agreement freezes, chip away at morale and mental health and push employees to seek work elsewhere.
Putting workers – and their wellness – as top priority
The Mental Health Commission of Canada unveiled a guide in April 2022 to help managers face the “epidemic of mental health problems” affecting millions of Canadian workers, CEO Michel Rodrigue said in an interview.
“t’s not a checkmark exercise that ‘I’ve done this, OK, we’re done, thank you, we move on to something else.’ It is really a journey you have to commit to,” he said.
The commission’s “tool kit” offers approaches to everything from onboarding new staff members – through buddy systems and team-wide welcomes, for example – to how to recognize cues of declining mental health and the best ways to respond, on top of protecting one’s own psychological well-being.
“When you take flights, they always caution you to put your own oxygen mask on first prior to helping someone else,” Rodrigue noted. “Managers need to protect their own mental health.”
At PwC Canada, the professional services firm has opted not to mandate a return to the office for its 7,300-plus workers. It has also added five extra long weekends – paid Mondays or Fridays off. And it redesigned benefits to boost mental health coverage, providing an EFAP, an additional $2,500 mental health benefit and a well-being and lifestyle benefit that can go toward a range of services.
“We also had our leaders share some of their own personal stories and struggles so that we could really talk about normalizing that conversation,” said managing partner Lana Paton.
Part of the answer lies simply in firmer boundaries. “During COVID what we really saw as everybody went remote, it was very easy for home life to start to bleed into work life and vice versa,” she said.
“Maybe it’s as simple as getting a personal phone so that come 5 p.m. you disconnect,” added Trottier.
Workplace supports can also go too far, “if it sounds like training or yet another thing that you have to do,” he said.
“The trick is to make it about them.”