A recent Sun Life survey found that nearly 60 per cent of Canadians say their mental health has been negatively impacted due to the pandemic. Many are struggling with stress, loneliness, job uncertainty, the possibility of getting sick and losing loved ones.

Dave Jones, senior vice-president of group benefits at Sun Life, is deeply concerned about the rising cases of mental illness in Canada.

“This is a national issue,” he says. “Mental health impacts more and more people every day, and we all have a responsibility to do something about it.”

Over the last few years, employers have started playing a larger role in supporting employee mental health, notes Jones, as executives realize that when their employees don’t get the help they need, they either stay home from work or underperform when they are on the job.

It’s estimated that at least 500,000 Canadians miss work each week due to a mental health issue, according to CAMH. This is leading to increases in short-term and long-term disability (LTD) rates, with mental health claims accounting for 30 per cent of all LTD claims, says Jones. According to Sun Life, the total economic impact of mental health challenges in Canada is about $51 billion per year, with $20 billion driven by disability claims, absenteeism and lost productivity.

Businesses must take action now

Jones says that Canadian employers must play a larger and more prominent role in addressing mental health in their workplaces, and that business leaders must act now to protect the health and well-being of their employees. To do that, firms need to establish organizational cultures that foster openness around mental health—and create policies that support it.

“Supporting employee mental health is essential,” explains Jones. “Companies cannot afford to ignore this issue any longer.”

Fortunately, there are steps that organizations can take to ensure that employees feel safe and supported in their work environments by their leaders and colleagues, he says.

Employers should start by ensuring they have a mental health strategy in place. This includes mental health support and wellness programs in your workplace benefits program, mental health training for leaders and general awareness of mental health.

Mental health training for leaders helps them create safe and supportive environments among their teams, and benefits such as an Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) can provide services and counselling for employees and their families.

A robust benefits plan should also include comprehensive paramedical benefits, such as access to virtual mental health support, self-guided sessions and spending accounts that ensure employees receive adequate treatment.

Flexibility is key

The best way for employers to support their employees is to offer a variety of programs that they can choose from. This could include:

Larger maximums for mental health treatment

Most benefits plans cap their coverage for mental health practitioners at $500 or $1,000 a year, notes Jones. That’s not enough. According to the Canadian Psychological Association, treating mental health requires a standalone maximum of between $3,500 to $4,000 per year. Consider group benefits that have higher maximums and also include more comprehensive EFAPs.

Access to virtual care

Some programs now offer virtual care, especially today with COVID-19 restrictions. Sun Life recently partnered with Dialogue, a Canadian telemedicine provider, to launch Lumino Health Virtual Care, which is essentially a virtual walk-in clinic that allows plan members with acute physical and mental health issues to connect directly with local health-care providers. “In our current environment, many Canadians prefer to engage with health-care professionals virtually,” says Jones, whether that’s over the phone or by video conference. “Virtual care is the natural evolution of health care. It provides people with immediate access to care, not having to worry about waiting rooms or difficulty getting an appointment. It’s also extremely helpful for those people who live in remote areas where care may be hours away.”

Self-guided online sessions

Some benefit programs now offer self-guided online resources that can help an individual cope with a mental health issue privately and on their own terms. For example, there are tools that focus on cognitive behavioural therapies for managing anxiety, says Jones. The advantage of these kinds of programs is that they’re easy to access. “It’s critical to make it easier for employees to have diverse benefits and wellness solutions, whenever and wherever they need it,” he says.

Spending accounts (such as a health spending account or personal spending account)

These accounts are employer-funded accounts with a fixed annual amount that employees can use to pay for health and wellness expenses that aren’t covered by their primary plan. They can increase coverage customization and choice for employees. This customization and choice can also help with attracting and retaining talent.

Stand up for mental health

The companies that are successfully helping their employees are the ones where support for mental health comes from the top. Executives must demonstrate leadership by being open about their own struggles, fostering a sense of openness around mental health and showing—through their benefit offerings and their actions—that they take these issues seriously.

“Managers must work towards building a positive mental health culture for their teams, which could include regular check-ins with employees and flexible working schedules,” says Jones. “It’s important to lead by example when it comes to workplace mental health. The CEOs of Canada’s leading companies need to make mental health a priority for meaningful and sustainable action to happen. We can’t afford to wait. We need to act now.”

For more information visit sunlife.ca/workplacementalhealth