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The powerful influence of the workplace on mental well-being

5 min read

An urgent call to action for Canadian employers

June 13, 2024

“I survived the most difficult time of my life because of decisions made by people right here in this room,” Jennifer Young told a global forum of her Manulife colleagues, this past February.  

A member of Manulife’s Human Resources Team, Jennifer spoke about her journey with postpartum depression and anxiety at the forum, which featured personal stories from Manulife employees about what Better means to them and how it connects to the organization’s mission and purpose. 

“I felt sad. I felt scared. I felt defeated. And then I felt nothing—that’s when I needed to get help,” she said through a tearful but determined voice.  “And I’m not exaggerating one bit when I tell you that if I didn’t know for a fact that I had comprehensive mental health care coverage through Manulife, I wouldn’t have gotten help.” 

Jennifer Young, Human Resources, Manulife

Jennifer’s journey is very common, with 23 per cent of mothers and 22 per cent of fathers affected by postpartum depression and anxiety.1,2 But, her story is also reflective of a broader national narrative, in which Canadian workers are increasingly looking to their employers for support during a mental health crisis.  

The number of workers and their family members seeking treatment for mental illness grew by 8.6 per cent in 2021, another 4 per cent in 2022, and 5 per cent in 2023, according to Manulife Group Benefits aggregate claims data. In the 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, 18 per cent of those surveyed said they currently have a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition.3 

Undeniable impact on productivity and disability 

Manulife claims data show that mental health concerns are the leading cause for both short-term and long-term disability, ahead of disability claims for physical injuries and all other chronic conditions.4 According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental illness accounts for two-thirds of long-term disability costs.5 

A staggering 48 per cent of employees are experiencing at least one work-related mental health risk factor, according to Manulife’s 2023 Wellness Report, a survey of 8,728 employees from 99 Canadian organizations. For example, 27 per cent of respondents faced challenges with work-life balance, 17 per cent struggled managing their workload, and 22 per cent said work-related stress impacted their sleep. 

The effects on workplace productivity are substantial and should be concerning for Canadian employers. An average of 49 days per employee were lost due to health-related absences and presenteeism in 2023, which is up from 48 days in 2022, and 41 days in 2021.6 

Worrying gap in mental health coverage for Canadians 

The average amount of employee benefits coverage for psychotherapy in Canada is just $750,7 an amount that would likely only cover between 3 and 5 sessions of therapy—far less than what is needed to treat common mental illnesses. 

“There can be a significant impact on the success of therapy if it is curtailed or terminated early due to a lack of access or financial resources,” says Dr. Claire Harrigan, a Psychiatrist, at Cleveland Clinic Canada, Manulife’s Medical Director. “Beyond finding the right practitioner, building a successful therapeutic relationship takes time—as does the therapy itself.” 

Luckily for Jennifer, Manulife provides employees $12,000 in coverage annually per family member for a mental health benefit which includes support for therapy from practitioners such as psychologists, clinical counsellors, psychoanalysts, and social workers. 

“I couldn’t have financially afforded it on my own,” says Jennifer. “I spent my maternity leave getting treatment, healing, and learning how to be a mom to my newborn son.”  

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), cognitive behavioural therapy for problems such as anxiety or depression usually involves 12 to 20 sessions. For this number of visits, employees may need between $2,000 and $4,000 worth of coverage per year. 

“When an employee has sufficient coverage for mental health services, it can be a profound motivator for them to seek treatment,” says Dr. Georgia Pomaki, who leads Manulife’s Mental Health Best Practices Team, and is the current Chair of the Technical Committee of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. 

Dr. Georgia Pomaki, Mental Health Best Practices, Manulife, & Technical Committee Chair, Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace

“Not only will they feel their mental health is valued, but there’s an implicit message that their employer is fostering a culture of wellness and acceptance,” she adds.  

Mental health solutions for the workplace 

In addition to coverage for therapy, employers can take steps to increase the likelihood workers will be successful when they do decide to get help. A full-service Employee and Family Assistance Program can provide employees with 24/7/365 access to immediate, confidential, and personalized support from mental health practitioners by phone, video, in person, or online.  

As well, 24/7 virtual care services with on-demand access to healthcare professionals who support primary care and mental health can help ensure employees can get support when and where it’s convenient for them. Coverage for Personalized Medicine has also been a game changer for some individuals and their families. Following a simple swab of the inner cheek, a pharmacogenetic test can help inform which medications may be more helpful for someone with a mental illness, based on their genetic makeup. 

Manulife’s Workplace Solutions for Mental Health offers a number of recommendations, tools, and resources for employers, which includes free online mental health training for managers. The four-part course is designed to equip leaders with the insight and skills they need to help support mental wellness. 

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To find out more about what your group benefits plan covers or to make changes to your plan, talk to your benefits advisor. If you have a plan with Manulife, contact your Manulife representative.

1 Statistics Canada, 2019.
2 Dennis, C.-L., Marini, F., Dol, J., Vigod, S. N., Grigoriadis, S., & Brown, H. K. Paternal prevalence and risk factors for comorbid depression and anxiety across the first 2 years postpartum: A nationwide Canadian cohort study. Depression and Anxiety, 2022.
3 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, 2023.
4 Manulife Group Benefits aggregate claims data, 2021, 2022, 2023.
5 Mental Health Commission of Canada, Organizations committed to improving employee mental health can now be guided by two pioneers, 2021.
6 Manulife Wellness Report, 2021, 2022, 2023.
7 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, 2021.

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