As we progress through the pandemic, an unexpected consequence has been revealed: a Canada-wide “echo” pandemic in mental health. We’ve heard stories of struggle and fragility from employees in all industries, but this increased risk doesn’t have to be inevitable. Companies that actively support their workers see better employee engagement and well-being across the board. Employers must prioritize mental health initiatives if they want successful outcomes for themselves and their teams; here’s how you can get started today on focusing on your company’s mental health program.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused isolation, workplace burnout, feelings of loss, and changes in parenting and caregiver routines for many, contributing to an overall decline in mental health. Many employers have seen a rise in absenteeism and mental health disability claims, along with increased drug and mental health practitioner paramedical claims. Our Return to Health® 2021 statistics showed that mental illness-related disability claims went up 5%, from 24% to 29%, far exceeding the usual 0.5% to 1% increase we typically see year over year.

Just like physical safety in the workplace, leadership must support making mental health a priority.

According to the latest Mental Health Index by Telus, 75% of those surveyed continue to be at moderate to high mental health risk.1 The anxiety and depression due to COVID may have reduced, only to be replaced by financial stress from inflation and an unsettled economy.

The importance of a mental health strategy

COVID-19 motivated employers to take stock of what they had in place to support employees and their mental health. Leger polled 1,000 Ontario residents in February 2022 and found that only 54% of respondents had benefits at work, and only 36% had a plan with mental health care allowance.2 The median amount allowed was $750, often insufficient to receive ongoing support.3

Mental illness is a complex disease often requiring ongoing treatment and support. In addition to their own mental health, employees may also be trying to support their children. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), children were one of the hardest-hit age groups by the pandemic.4

Critical elements of a mental health strategy

It is essential to remove financial barriers that could deter individuals from seeking the mental health support they need. As employers bring their employees back into the office, they should consider raising mental health amounts in their benefits plan, says Dr. Deepy Sur of the Ontario Association of Social Workers. However, more than a simple addition or increase in benefits will be required. Employers should consider an overall mental health strategy. A good starting point is completing a baseline assessment of the organization.

For example, we can look at Bell Canada and how it has evolved its workplace mental health strategy over the years. In 2010, Bell saw its mental health-related short-term disability claims increase annually, yet only 12% of employees used the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).5 Workplaces, such as Bell Canada, have become better equipped to deal with absenteeism and mental health disability claims with the following:

  • Leadership mental health training and buy-in
  • Awareness campaigns
  • Support and services
  • Measurement and evaluation

For a mental health strategy to be effective, however, there must be senior leadership buy-in. Just like physical safety in the workplace, leadership must support making mental health a priority. Downloading Canada’s National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is a great starting point. Mental health training is essential for senior leaders and managers to help reduce stigma and to support a psychologically safe work environment. Mental health training can help leaders recognize when an employee may be struggling and how to support them through stay-at-work accommodations and promotion of mental health benefits, such as an Employee Assistance Program.

Measuring and evaluating a mental health strategy’s effectiveness is just as important as implementing it.

Clear communication is essential for any successful initiative, but this is especially true when discussing mental health. Make it easier to talk about these difficult topics by establishing an open dialogue among your team members and encouraging everyone to be active listeners without judgment or defensiveness. When employees feel supported, they’ll be more likely to speak up and seek the help they need.

Promoting awareness events such as Bell Let’s Talk Day on January 25, 2023, and CMHA’s Mental Health Week, May 1 – May 7, 2023, can help employees better understand mental illness and care and reduce stigma by encouraging ongoing conversations throughout the year.

Developing a comprehensive Employee Assistance Program is critical for any company looking to support its teams’ mental health. Ensure various resources are provided that employees can access according to their particular needs and preferences, including online modules, books, or even one-on-one sessions with mental health professionals.

Support and services such as Employee Assistance Programs or digital tools like virtual health care programs focus on prevention. These digital tools have been proven to be as effective as in-person and can support remote individuals with limited access to in-person treatment. COVID-19 was a catalyst for virtual counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Measuring and evaluating a mental health strategy’s effectiveness is just as important as implementing it. Employers can use mental health performance indicators such as the frequency of unplanned absences, percentage of mental health-related disability claims, benefits drug and paramedical utilization rates, EAP usage, and employee feedback surveys to understand the psychological health of the workplace. Based on the results of these performance indicators, employers can make the necessary changes to their strategy.

A mental health strategy is a must-have

Developing a mental health strategy is no longer a “nice to have”; it’s a must-have. Mental illness is a leading cause of disability and lost productivity for many employers. A comprehensive mental health strategy that becomes part of the company’s DNA will help reduce absenteeism, increase employee engagement, improve employee attraction and retention, and create a culture of well-being.

Contact your Cowan consultant for help with mapping your mental health strategy.

1 LifeWorks. (November 2022). The Mental Health Index by LifeWorksTM. Retrieved from URL.
2, 3 Herhalt, C. (April 11, 2022). Boost mental health care benefits as employees return to the office, Ontario’s social workers say. Retrieved from URL.
4 CAMH. (April 26, 2022). Majority of Ontario students surveyed report feeling depressed about the future because of COVID 19. Retrieved from URL.
5 Rolfe, K. (December 9, 2022). 2022 Mental Health Summit: How Bell Canada is evolving its workplace mental-health strategy. Retrieved from URL.