While the coronavirus pandemic may be in the rearview mirror for most employers, the Ontario-based Workplace Safety and Insurance Board knows all too well that the shadow pandemic that emerged from the health crisis is still impacting employees in the workplace.

At a time when some employers are considering cutting back on mental-health benefits, the organization is doubling down on its commitment to providing these resources. In 2023, the WSIB increased its mental-health coverage from $3,000 to $5,000 and expanded the range of practitioners covered under the plan to include psychologists, marriage and family therapists and psychoanalysts. In January, it made mental-health coverage unlimited for its employees and their dependants.

Employee well-being speaks to the very nature of the WSIB, which provides wage-loss benefits, medical coverage and support to workers injured on the job, says Anna Filice, its chief people officer. “When we look at the claims we’re dealing with every day in Ontario, mental-health-related claims are growing faster than any other type of claim. The effects tend to linger and the costs to employees’ lives once they enter into the [health-care] system are great.”

Read: How 5 employers are broadening the scope of mental-health support

Indeed, Canadian life and health insurers processed nearly $600 million in claims related to mental health in 2021, up 45 per cent since 2020 and 75 per cent since 2019, according to a report by the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association.

“Our employer value proposition is based around taking care of the whole person. The decision [to make mental-health coverage unlimited] very much aligns with our shared values and our broader wellness strategy, which includes other programs and services, like our employee assistance program. We thought this was a meaningful way to demonstrate our commitment to our employees.”

Removing barriers

A third (32 per cent) of Canadian employees say cost/affordability is the No. 1 barrier to getting mental-health support, according to a 2023 survey by Telus Health. A lack of available care/long wait times (16 per cent) and not knowing where to get care or what type of care is best for them (12 per cent each) were also among the top reasons respondents cited for not accessing mental-health support.

When evaluating the value of the WSIB’s mental-health coverage, Filice says the organization’s goal was to ensure all employees and their families have access to the care they need. “We didn’t want to put a ceiling on these types of benefits because we didn’t want anyone running into barriers accessing services they need for their recovery.”

Many traditional benefits plans only cover psychology or social work and would typically reimburse between $300 to $500 a year, says Kim Siddall, People Corporation’s national vice-president of client strategy and delivery excellence, noting many employers know this amount is inadequate and are increasing coverage.

“Hourly fees are increasing among the mental-health practitioners’ community, so you’re not getting far in terms of care with that amount. Employers recognize the need to provide adequate financial support that truly allows people to see the same practitioner and get some momentum in their care, so they can move forward in their treatment toward recovery. A higher [coverage] amount gets you there.”

Read: Half of plan members say coverage of certain benefits limits their ability to seek treatment: survey

In many cases, employers are hearing directly from employees — via survey feedback — about how quickly they’re hitting their coverage maximums, which she says is a big part of the reason larger employers are taking steps to increase their maximums or to remove them altogether.

Risk by the numbers

• Roughly a third of disability claims under Canadian employer-sponsored benefits plans in 2022 were due to mental-health reasons, just two-thirds (63%) of organizations are addressing this risk effectively.

• More than half (55%) of employers expect health and safety risks to impact their businesses in the next 3 years, ranking mental health as the No. 3 risk to their businesses. While workforce exhaustion (ranked No. 16) is a contributor to mental-health issues, just 56% said they’re currently addressing this risk.

Source: Mercer Canada’s 2022 people risk survey

For employers that can’t afford to increase the maximum coverage amount, Siddall suggests they consider investing in different mental-health mediums, such as digital-health providers, to expand access. Digital venues tend to make it easier for plan members to access a more diverse slate of eligible practitioners or tools, she adds.

Building awareness

A 2023 report by Sun Life Financial Inc. found mental-health disorders continue to be the main driver of disability claims and, among workers aged 44 and younger, mental-health disorders accounted for more than half of claims. It also noted quicker recoveries and better long-term outcomes are often seen by those with early access to care.

The report also noted a 24 per cent increase in drug claims to treat mental-health disorders among workers aged 30 and younger, while mental-health drug claims among employees aged 30 to 39 also rose 13 per cent.

Filice has seen an openness from generation Z employees in talking about the importance of mental health and believes younger workers’ progressive attitude toward mental-health care is a result of employers’ efforts to build awareness. “Our president is a great advocate for mental health. He has shared personal stories with the organization, which has encouraged other employees to come forward and share their stories and really build a sense of connection and provide a psychologically safe place for folks in this organization to talk about mental health.”

Younger employees aren’t shying away from mental-health topics, says Siddall, noting they’re actively seeking employers who can demonstrate their commitment to overall employee wellbeing through support tools and workplace policies.

What’s the ROI?

Since the WSIB started making improvements to its mental-health coverage, it has seen utilization increase by 21 per cent, says Filice.

“Employees are already using it and value it. Mental-health practitioners are actually now our largest paramedical practitioner category from a usage perspective, surpassing things like physiotherapy and massage therapy. That tells us we’ve addressed a gap and need for our employees [and] their families.”

Read: Employers leveraging benefits, flexibility to prevent pandemic surge in disability claims

By ensuring employees can access the mental-health services they need at no cost, an employer tells workers they’re seen as a whole person and that they’re working for a company that wants them to bring their best self to work, Siddall notes.

Indeed, when left unaddressed, mental-health issues can manifest into other physical health issues, says Filice, noting investing in mental-health supports pays itself back in dividends. “Our productivity, results and engagement have never been better at the WSIB. And that all translates to how we provide services to Ontarians.”

While utilization of mental-health benefits has increased, it’s well worth it, she says, because employees are showing up at work in a great way. “We’ve had the highest engagement scores since before the pandemic. So, we’re seeing a lot of positive returns that [have] . . . validated for us the importance of taking care of our people in a preventative way. It helped us . . . walk the talk.”

Lauren Bailey is the interim managing editor of Benefits Canada and the Canadian Investment Review.