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What Can Employers do to Protect Employees’ Mental Health?

By: Benefits by Design | Tuesday February 25, 2020

Updated : Thursday December 10, 2020

Welcome to “Ask the Advisor”! With the help of one knowledgeable group insurance Advisor, we answer insurance questions submitted by our very own plan sponsors.

This month’s question is: “How Can Employers Protect Employees’ Mental Health?

To answer this timely and important question we have an Advisor who has long been an advocate and strong voice for the importance of mental health: Meghan Vallis.

Reimagining Health and Wellness for a Remote Workforce

How Can Employers Protect Employees’ Mental Health?

Firstly, it’s important to cover why protecting employees’ mental health is so important. 

After all, the workforce is changing and employee loyalty is waning.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) half of Canadians will have suffered from a mental illness by age 40. Mental illness is also a leading cause of disability in Canada, accounting for 30% of claims and 70% of all disability costs. Given that the cost of disability leave for mental illness is about double the cost of a leave due to physical illness, that’s a significant impact to employers. Mental illness is also often an underlying secondary cause of disability when physical illness or accident is the primary cause. 

And that’s just the financial tip of the iceberg. Laying underneath is the cost of presenteeism and absenteeism that poor employee wellbeing can have on a business.

So – back to the original question: what can employers do?

There is a lot to consider when it comes to mental health. Here’s what I recommend to begin:

Employers can start by reviewing the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)’s Mental Health Playbook for Business Leaders. The playbook outlines five research-informed recommendations for employers to begin bringing mental health to the forefront.

I also recommend reading about the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace– “the first of its kind in the world, is a set of voluntary guidelines, tools, and resources intended to guide organizations in promoting emotional wellbeing and preventing psychological harm at work”.

Employers can also access resources from Not Myself Today, including an informational kit to help them get started!

Include Mental Health in Employee Benefits

It’s common practice for employers to incorporate support for employee wellbeing in their total compensation strategy, namely in the benefit plan. The Employee and Family Assistance Program (EAP) is something that many employers may already be familiar with. The EAP supports employees to resolve work, health and life issues. The EAP is an effective, but underutilized product. A newer tool in the benefits box is iCBT or internet-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. iCBT is digital therapy guided by a registered professional. iCBT can be claimed through the psychologist benefit in most benefit plans. 

Employers can also support employee wellbeing is through their total compensation package, is to include generous time for personal days. Notice that I didn’t say sick days. Stigma around mental health is still an issue and the language we use to break down stigma matters. Allocating personal days to employees gives them the flexibility to take a day off. Removing barriers to access care and time off, such as a doctor’s note, is an easy change that employers can implement right away.

Build Support from Top-Down

Beyond the basic support available to employees in their benefits, building support for employee’s mental health must come from the top down. Leadership must be invested in supporting employee’s wellbeing and they must practice what they preach. Otherwise, programs fall flat, and employees won’t buy what leadership is selling. Ultimately the support needs to be part of the company culture. 

Employers should be careful not to confuse supporting employee wellness with employee mental health and psychological illness. Workplace wellness initiatives usually support healthy behavior in the workplace with the goal of improving health outcomes. These programs may include activity challenges, flu clinics, gym memberships, lunchtime yoga or mindfulness and more. Wellness initiatives can support wellbeing but it is in a separate category from mental health initiatives.

When it comes down to it, little budget, big-budget, or no budget there’s something every employer can do to support employees and their mental health.