In recent years, many organizations have embraced corporate wellness programs, recognizing the need to offer employees a holistic benefits package that includes mental health support. And with good reason: more and more people are dealing with mental health issues, which can have a major impact on their ability to work.
Data from Statistics Canada show that 27 percent of Canadian workers experience high to extreme levels of stress on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Sun Life reports that mental health issues were the driving force behind an uptick in long-term disability claims between 2016 and 2019, and that 59 percent of working Canadians have experienced a mental health issue. Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these problems. A survey by Mental Health Research Canada and Pollara Strategic Insights found that, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, the proportion of Canadians reporting high levels of anxiety increased from 5 percent to 20 percent and remains at 21 percent as of November 2020. The percentage of Canadians reporting high levels of depression doubled following the outbreak and has remained steady at 12 percent.
Clearly, this is a problem that workplaces need to address. But how do you go about choosing a program that will truly make a difference for your employees and have a positive effect on your organization? Here, we’ve outlined five key criteria to look for when selecting a workplace mental health program.
Although it may seem as if we’ve come a long way toward destigmatizing mental illness, research suggests that people with mental health issues are still viewed negatively. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 64 percent of Ontario workers say they would be concerned about how work would be affected if a colleague had a mental illness, and 39 percent say they would not tell their managers if they were experiencing a mental health problem.
This stigma can cause feelings of hopelessness and shame in people struggling with mental illness, making the problem worse. It also creates a significant barrier to treatment, preventing 40 percent of people with anxiety or depression from seeking medical help.
According to Annabel Tremblay, team lead and mental health specialist at Dialogue, it’s essential to seek out a program that fights mental health stigma in the workplace through proactive outreach initiatives, rather than merely reactive solutions. Instead of placing all the onus on the employee to reach out when they’re struggling, this type of program is designed to check in with employees on a regular basis. It can include tools for measuring workplace stress, such as a workplace mental health questionnaire and stress screenings. It can also involve providing sessions with a mental health specialist, sharing wellness tips with employees, and hosting educational webinars about work-life balance. In brief, the program should foster a supportive atmosphere in which mental health issues are normalized.
Easy, Convenient Access to Therapy
Your employees are more likely to take advantage of therapy if it’s easy to access and fits into their schedule. A mental health program that offers virtual therapy—a private, one-on-one discussion via video conferencing—allows people to meet with a therapist from the comfort of home, saving them the time and hassle of commuting to an in-person appointment.
What’s more, studies show that virtual therapy can be just as effective as in-person therapy. Although in-person treatment is recommended for patients who are in severe psychological distress or who have a serious mental illness or addiction, many other patients benefit from virtual care.
It’s also important to choose a mental health program that ensures your employees can speak with a therapist within hours of making the request. If they have to wait days or weeks for an appointment, their symptoms could worsen, and they may feel less motivated to give therapy a try. It takes a lot of courage to take that first step toward getting help, so the program should make it as easy for them as possible, providing a welcome alternative to searching for a therapist on their own (which can be a challenging and time-consuming process) and the chance to bypass the often long wait times seen across Canada. In Ontario, for example, seriously mentally ill patients have to wait an estimated 72 days for access to counselling and treatment funded by the province.
Multidisciplinary, Holistic Treatment
Everybody’s needs are different, so your mental health program should offer a customizable treatment plan based on each individual’s situation and preferences. Some employees will need a quick check-in every now and then, while others will benefit from regular sessions with a counsellor. Still others will require in-depth treatment from a licensed specialist. In some cases, patients may need medication to help manage their symptoms.
Your mental health program will ideally offer access to a multidisciplinary team—including mental health specialists, psychologists, psychotherapists, doctors, and nurse practitioners—so that your employees can be treated promptly by the most appropriate healthcare professional. It’s not always immediately clear what that treatment should be. For instance, a patient who is having trouble sleeping might initially consult a doctor, who may discover the sleep issue is stress-related and refer the patient to a mental health specialist. Having access to different types of health professionals is not only convenient; there is also evidence that it leads to better outcomes for the patient. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2019 found that adults with depression benefited from receiving a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressant medication, versus receiving a single form of therapy.
Focused on Positive Clinical Outcomes
A good workplace mental health program will focus on giving each patient what they need to get better. In addition to tailoring the treatment plan to individual needs, this means not placing a limit on the number of therapy sessions per employee.
Employee benefits packages typically reimburse a set number of sessions or maximum dollar amount for therapy. If an employee needs to continue therapy once this limit is reached, the additional sessions will be at the expense of either the employer or the employee—neither of which is ideal for your organization. As the employer, you’ll either be faced with mounting costs of longer-term therapy or, if your employee has to pay out-of-pocket, the risk that they might drop out of therapy altogether, putting their recovery at risk and leading to negative repercussions at home and at work.
Your mental health program should include an unlimited number of sessions until remission so that employees remain motivated and able to continue therapy for as long as they need it, improving their chances of recovery. In some cases, this can reduce their time spent on disability leave or eliminate the need for a leave altogether. The program should also ensure that the patient can continue seeing the same therapist for the duration of treatment.
Why Post-Therapy Follow-ups Are Essential
Follow-up sessions are also a vital part of ensuring positive outcomes. Once the patient is no longer attending regular therapy appointments, they should have the opportunity to check in with their therapist, who can then assess whether they’re building resilience to stress and developing the coping mechanisms necessary for a full recovery. Some programs also assign a case manager to each patient to track their progress and coordinate between the various medical professionals involved in their care.
All employees should also have continuous access to evidence-based mental health literature on topics like workplace stress management, wellness, and resilience, which can help prevent issues such as burnout and presenteeism.
Predictable and Manageable Costs
There will inevitably be times when demand for mental health support is higher, as we’ve seen with the increase in anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as we tend to see in the fall and winter months, when some people experience symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Ideally, your workplace mental health program will be designed to accommodate these busy periods, with resources already in place to meet heavy demand so that there’s no delay in getting your employees the help they need. The program should also build these anticipated spikes into its price; that way, your organization isn’t faced with an unexpected rise in costs.
Your best option is to choose a program that offers year-round, comprehensive mental health support at a fixed price per employee, per month—including on-demand self-care resources such as stress tests and sessions with a mental health specialist, as well as structured, in-depth treatment programs with licensed professionals for those who need it. This is much easier to budget for than a program offering services on an as-needed basis, with fluctuating costs. Ultimately, you’ll also be reducing the unpredictable costs of lost productivity and the challenges of managing employees with mental health issues.
Most importantly, you’ll be investing in the overall health of your organization by showing your employees that you care about their well-being and by cultivating a workplace in which mental health support is normalized.