The Fraser Health Authority has always taken care of its employees when they go on disability leave, but the organization recently decided to change the trajectory of employees’ disability journey, introducing new services that can help them earlier in the process.

One cause of disability the health authority aimed to address was substance use disorder, said Leslie Allan-Reed, its director of absence and disability management, during a session at Benefits Canada’s 2021 Mental Health Summit. Previously, the organization didn’t offer early intervention in this area, but since it’s a safety-sensitive workplace, Allan-Reed’s team saw it as a priority. It could also help the organization save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in disability supports.

Read: 2021 BPS coverage: Pandemic presents opportunity to address substance use with employees

Fraser Health Authority, which has nearly 40,000 staff, introduced ALAViDA’s on-demand substance use support program among other preventative solutions for chronic health issues. The specialized, virtual programming includes internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy or psychotherapy, medical support, moderated peer support and awareness and monitoring. Use of the program is completely confidential.

“The work that we are doing is really trying to influence a larger population earlier on in what might be the start of problematic behaviour,” said Allan-Reed.

Substance use cases making up about a third of mental-health issues for employers and 21 per cent of Canadians will have a substance use disorder in their lifetimes. This has only been made worse by the pandemic, which reduced employees’ ability to cope with stress through more healthy avenues. Instead, many have turned to alcohol and other substances.

Fraser Health Authority saw that firsthand, said Allan-Reed. “With the incredible stress that our system has been under, not only with COVID but in B.C., we’ve dealt with the heat dome that killed hundreds of people, we’ve had floods recently, staff are stressed. We’re certainly in a place where staff are struggling to cope and may be reaching for something that’s less healthy as a coping mechanism.”

Read: SAP focusing on employee support, environmental issues in wake of B.C. floods

Elliot Stone, chief executive officer and co-founder of ALAViDA, said the “amazing gains” over the past 10 years in de-stigmatizing seeking help for mental-health challenges haven’t extended to substance use disorders.

That’s because most employees consider seeking help to be more costly than continuing to live with their substance use disorder. They’re expected to stop working while waiting for treatment, commit to an abstinence goal for the rest of their life, compromise their privacy to attend group therapy and possibly travel to receive care.

“What we see consistently is that people sit on their hands until it becomes unbearable,” he said. “And at that point it’s already too late in the sense that it’s become very expensive for plan sponsors and very uncomfortable for the individual who’s going through it.”

There was an additional stigma attached to substance use disorder among Fraser Health Authority’s employees, said Allan-Reed, referring to a greater sense of shame from already knowing the impacts of these disorders because of their positions as health-care professionals.

Read: Mental health and substance abuse issues on the rise: survey

In response, the health authority rolled out concentrated communications to encourage staff to use the program. Its main message — Something to help you unwind after your shift — gave it the opportunity to explore how people were coping with the stresses of the job over the past two years and educate them about ALAViDA’s program. It put up posters in break rooms, filtered the message through union representatives and used email campaigns, screensavers and more. Each communications push led to a spike in engagement with the program.

“A lot of the feedback that we got through the confidential channels was that they felt this sense of belonging that they weren’t alone,” said Allan-Reed, crediting the support of Fraser Health Authority’s union partners with the growth in uptake. 

“That goes a long way to building trust is the union groups sharing the messaging that ‘this is an important resource, it’s available to you, it’s confidential, it’s safe, we encourage you to use it and you don’t have to be at the point where you’re unable to come to work to do something productive and helpful for yourself,’” she said.  

Since introducing its suite of new early interventions, the health authority has seen the rate of long-term disability claims per 1,000 lives covered decrease from 7.57 in 2018 to 7.08 in 2021 and new claims per 1,000 covered lives decline from 2.32 to 1.84 in the same time period. It also prevented an estimated $3.7 million in long-term disability direct costs.

Read more coverage of the 2021 Mental Health Summit.