After three years, the World Health Organization has declared that COVID-19 is no longer classified as a global emergency, although it remains a pandemic in many countries. The virus has left a lasting mark on the Canadian healthcare system and continues to impact the health of Canadians.1 Many of these impacts will be felt for years to come.
It is vital for employers to understand their role in helping to reduce these impacts and how doing so can lead to a healthier workforce and reduced absenteeism.
Surgery and treatment backlogs
Despite ongoing efforts to reduce surgical backlogs, patients across Canada continue to wait longer for hip and knee replacements compared to prior pandemic levels.2 Emergency rooms and surgeries are back to normal operations, but clearing the backlog is expected to take years. According to data released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), about 937,000 fewer surgeries were performed in Canada during the pandemic. Almost 22 million healthcare services are estimated to be backlogged across the county, including surgeries, screenings, and investigations.3 All of these can lead to increased advanced disease states, disability, absenteeism, and death.
Mental health and substance use
COVID impacted more than just Canadian’s physical health; it has negatively impacted their mental health and has led to increases in substance use. Based on a recent survey conducted on behalf of the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, many Canadians still report significant concerns with their mental health and substance use. 35% of survey respondents reported moderate to severe mental health concerns, and 25% reported problematic substance use. Within the same survey, only one to three people accessed mental health treatment, and one in four accessed treatment for problematic substance use,4 leading to increased workplace absenteeism and disability incidence rates. We have seen mental health rise to the top of disability cause categories for short- and long-term disability claims. Access to care challenges and long wait times have also led to increased absence durations, making it more difficult for employers to support an already strained workforce.
What can be done?
The goal for both service providers, employees, and employers should focus on education, prevention, wellness and accommodations. When a disability or absence arises, all parties need to work together to find strategies and solutions to keep the employee at work or to return to work as quickly as possible.
As an employer, you can:
- Offer flexible work schedules/modified hours or modified duties and accommodations
- Ensure employees are provided with equal access to care; review your extended health care benefit offerings, expand covered services and benefit maximums
- Allow or encourage employees to attend medical or treatment appointments during work hours
- Implementing ergonomic reviews and assessments of the workspace
- Create an environment that reduces the stigma surrounding mental health by introducing the National Standard of Canada’s Psychological Health and Safety Guidelines5
- Implement manager mental health training6 to ensure managers are equipped with the training and tools to support employees at work and when returning to work
- Introduce and promote employee and family assistance programming (EFAP)
- Create a wellness and wellbeing strategy designed to address areas of concern and reduce absenteeism; a 2019 Deloitte study7 showed that for every dollar invested in mental health programs in the workplace, return on investment (ROI) after one year was 1.62 and after three years, ROI 2.188; this investment can help reduce some of the burdens that will be felt with our health care system and improve access to care; programs such as virtual healthcare, healthcare navigation or digital wellness apps could be added
- Implement managed accommodation and absence/disability programs through a third-party provider
- Provide financial literacy and retirement planning educational seminars
There are also early projections of an increase in COVID variants in the fall of 2023, so it is essential for employers to stay vigilant with health and safety protocols to help prevent infection spread. Many of the same protocols can apply—something that most HR professionals know very well!
With the proper support, coverage, and education, employers can do their part to help reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their employees.
For more information on how Cowan can help employers with their wellness solutions and disability management products, financial services, and benefits consulting, please reach out to your consultant.
1CBC. (May 5, 2023). WHO downgrades COVID pandemic, says it’s no longer a global emergency. Retrieved from URL.
2Canadian Institute for Health Information. (March 23, 2023). Long wait times persist as Canada tries to reduce surgical backlog. Retrieved from URL.
3Ontario Medical Association. (2021). The pandemic has created a significant backlog of healthcare services in Ontario. Retrieved from URL.
4Mental Health Commission of Canada. (October 4, 2022). Mental Health and Substance Use During COVID-19: Regional Spotlight and Key Factors. Retrieved from URL.
5Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2023). National Standard. Retrieved from URL.
6Canadian Mental Health Association. (2023) Workplace Mental Health Training. Retrieved from URL.
7Deloitte. (2019). The ROI in workplace mental health programs: Good for people, good for business. Retrieved from URL.