July 24, 2024

Serene Nest

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Canadians in crisis: The compelling case for more mental health benefits

4 min read

Dr. Seema Parmar holds a PhD in International Public Health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a leader in Advisory Services at Cleveland Clinic Canada, a medical centre where physicians, wellness experts and management consultants help organizations improve employee health and manage organizational risk.

Dr. Andrew Morgan, MD, FRCP(C) is a forensic psychiatrist who sees patients in his clinical practice and is part of the Advisory Services Team at Cleveland Clinic Canada.

Many Canadians struggled with their mental health before and during the pandemic, and now a range of economic, social and environmental stressors are adding to the strain. The Commonwealth Fund’s 2023 International Health Policy Survey showed more than one in four Canadian adults suffered from depression, anxiety or another mental health issue last year, up from one in five in 2016.

Unfortunately, Canadians often do not get the mental health treatment they need, with cost among the main barriers. Much of mental health care is provided privately in Canada, with people paying out of pocket or, if they are lucky, through employee benefits. This means Canadian companies play a pivotal role in ensuring employees get the mental health care they require.

Many of our corporate clients see mental health challenges playing out in real-time across their operations. Mental health-related productivity issues, absenteeism, disability and turnover complicate work force planning, impact workplace culture and are becoming more costly to companies.

We are now seeing more and more Canadian companies take meaningful steps to support employee mental health, including scaling up the annual dollar amount they provide for mental health benefits. Canada’s five largest banks, for example, now offer at least $5,000 a year per employee for mental health care and a range of other benefits to support employee well-being.

Other companies, such as Bell Canada, have lifted caps on mental health benefits for employees and their dependants altogether. “We promote prioritizing your mental health the same way you would your physical health, so it was important for us to act on that idea in a concrete way for our team and their dependants,” said Nikki Moffat, chief human resources officer at Bell.

Bell says its mental health care initiatives, including mandatory training and unlimited benefits, have reduced mental health-related short-term disability claims by more than 30 per cent and mental health relapse and recurrence by more than 50 per cent.

Better benefits, better treatment

Typically, Canadian employers offer about $750 annually for mental health services. Depending on the provider, this may cover up to five visits. Because a typical course of psychotherapy requires 12 to 16 sessions, the standard coverage does not allow an employee to receive adequate care without incurring substantial personal costs.

While many corporate employee assistance programs (EAPs) support employees’ mental health needs, most EAPs provide a handful of sessions that are designed to provide crisis or short-term support. While this can be a useful resource to assist people in navigating stressful life situations, it is an inadequate substitute for the longer-term and personalized care required to treat diagnosable mental illnesses.

Seeking support for mental health requires patients to navigate a complex array of practitioners (for example, family doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, therapists and counsellors) without fully understanding the support they require and who is best qualified to provide it. Practitioner shortages can lead to lengthy wait-times, particularly if the individual is seeking a practitioner from their cultural background or with similar experiences. It’s not uncommon for individuals suffering from mental health issues to meet with multiple practitioners in their search for compatibility and a trusting relationship. The process takes time, resources and perseverance.

Furthermore, mental health treatment and recovery do not always fit a prescriptive protocol and time frame. Individuals need the flexibility and resources to continue their care for as long as necessary, with the ability to adjust the intensity of care as circumstances change.

Employees with more mental health benefits, especially when coupled with education and support from their employers, can obtain guidance from different practitioners and experiment with varying treatment approaches until they find what works for them. This increases the likelihood that they will adhere to their treatment and their mental health needs will not impede their ability to succeed in and out of the workplace.

Stigma and culture need to be addressed

While increasing or removing the cap on mental health benefits provides many advantages, we see three key caveats:

  • Increasing mental health benefits cannot solve for a poor corporate culture or unrealistic work demands.
  • Employees need to know they can access mental health benefits confidentially, and doing so will not hinder their career or advancement ambitions.
  • Employees need to use the benefits offered.

“It’s not just providing benefits, it’s everything that comes with it including the training and culture change to reduce all barriers that might keep someone from getting the help they need, eliminating stigma and opening up conversations and encouraging employees to seek support,” says Bell’s Moffat.

Fortunately, more Canadian corporate leaders are recognizing the importance of investing in employee mental health, knowing this will benefit their companies in the long term. While research has shown a positive ROI on mental health programs, these leaders view ROI as more than a number on a page.

They know employees need support as they navigate challenges in their personal and professional lives. They see employees show up better at work and contribute to a stronger corporate culture. They appreciate the stories they hear of gratitude and loyalty, and value the role they play in caring for their people.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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