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What’s missing from your employee mental health program?

Thinking beyond benefits

Model of the human head mapped

It is now common wisdom that that one of the biggest factors impacting workplace engagement is employee mental health. One in five Canadians experience mental health issues in a given year. In any given week, that amounts to 500,000 employees who aren’t able to work due to a mental health problem or illness, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC).

Investing in mental health is the right thing to do and it also makes economic sense, because those funds provide a strong return on investment. In fact, one MHCC study estimated that the single-year productivity impact of mental illness totaled $6.4 billion in the workplace due to absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover—a figure projected to grow to $16 billion by 2041.

Supporting employee mental health requires thinking beyond just benefits. In this article, I’ll first describe some of the ways that progressive business leaders and HR professionals support mental health today. Then I’ll conclude with some context on how each of these tools can be combined to become even more effective.

  1. Employee engagement

If you generally feel positive by being supported and enabled to succeed, then you tend to be engaged in your job, which drives productivity. Those who are burnt out, depressed or anxious are less likely to be engaged at their jobs. MHCC reports that mental health accounts for approximately 30 per cent of short- and long-term disability claims. A disability leave for a mental illness costs about double that of one for a physical illness.

It follows, then, that an effective mental-health program can provide a tremendous return on investment. According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, promoting employees’ mental wellbeing can yield economic benefits with respect to retention, reduced absenteeism, increased job satisfaction, and improved performance. MHCC estimates that improving mental health management in the workplace could decrease productivity losses by as much as 30 per cent. In an organization of 1,000 employees, that’s annual savings of $397,713.

  1. Constant conversation about mental health

The stigma of mental illness in the workplace persists. CAMH reports that 39 per cent of Ontario workers wouldn’t tell their managers if they were experiencing a mental-health problem. Progressive employers are combatting stigma by constructing a constant conversation about the value of mental hygiene, keeping the channels of dialogue open, and acknowledging that mental health is an important part of overall health. One excellent starting point? These best practices for a “mental health ready” workplace.

  1. Funding for benefits

Leading employers are increasing the dollar amounts of their mental-health benefits. For example, Manulife provides up to $10,000, and EY Canada and Starbucks Canada provide up to $5,000 per year in funding packages for each employee. That money covers assessments, psychiatric drugs, and counselling. In Manulife’s case, the increased mental-health funding was tied to a decrease in short-term disability claims. Heads of HR at large companies tell me that their mental-health funds tend to be underutilized. Reducing stigma should drive up utilization rates.

  1. Proactively assessing mind health

Another component of a progressive mental-health package is the offering of proactive mental health assessments. For example, Medcan’s Mind Station entails a 10-15 minute digital self-assessment followed by 45 minutes with a psychologist, onsite or remotely through video. During the appointment, the psychologist reviews the client’s self-assessment responses to understand the person’s mental-health status, issues to focus on, and approaches available to deal with stressors.

  1. CBT and other types of programming

In addition to increased funding for benefits and proactive assessments, employers are offering a diverse set of solutions to support employee mental health. In many instances, a combination of these solutions is what may be impactful and employers need to think about these solutions in the context of longitudinal health versus on an episodic basis.

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a short-term therapy technique that can help people find new ways to behave by changing their thought patterns. Engaging with CBT can help people reduce stress, cope with complicated relationships, deal with grief, and face many other common life challenges. CBT can be delivered through face-to-face treatment with a therapist, therapy via text messages, virtual appointments, or group courses.
  • Encouraging employee mindfulness may help to address workplace stress and can include the provision of how-to-meditate seminars and the setting aside of quiet space at work to allow staff to meditate.
  • Raising awareness of low-cost meditation apps like Headspace also represent creative ways that employers are providing employees with tools to mitigate stress and increase mental health.

Progressive benefits packages are only one component. What remains is putting these pieces of the puzzle together. The most forward-thinking employers have wide-ranging mental health strategies, with numerous different access points and tools, similar in spirit to an HR talent-development system.

Medcan works with clients to create an integrated and comprehensive single-step solution that brings together the entire suite of mind and mental-health solutions via a case-management approach. We develop a robust understanding of the various mental health programs that employers offer in discreet clusters to their employees, engage in ongoing education and engagement programs for their employees to ensure improving awareness, and through a single intake process, triage what type of care is best suited for the employee at that point in time—ranging from a transactional resolution to a specific question to navigating their entry and successful exit from an in-patient addiction facility, and everything in between.

In addition, to improve the mental health of our employees at Medcan specifically, we have connected a relevant component of our annual incentive program for our leadership team to achieving and sustaining employee engagement using employee Net Promoter Score methodology.

A wellness-inspired workplace means less spent on healthcare in the long run and a more productive workforce. More importantly, we’re fostering organizational cultures that are happier, healthier, and more compassionate. Now that’s progressive.

Let’s talk about how your company can support sound minds and bodies. Contact us at to find the right mental health program for your workforce.

Ashim Khemani is the president of Medcan. He is the author of Canadian Group Insurance Benefits—A Practitioner’s Guide and Reference Manual, and the co-author of Global Health Care Systems: A Perspective on Issues, Practices and Trends Among OECD Nations.

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