When Bell Canada launched its Bell Let’s Talk initiative in 2010, the telecommunications company announced a plan to spend $155 million on fighting stigma, improving access to care and funding research for mental health — but it also knew it had to lead by example. 

One of the pillars of its plan was improving the mental health of its own workplace, said Monika Mielnik, director of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, mental health and well-being at Bell Canada, during Benefits Canada’s 2022 Mental Health Summit in November. To date, the company has spent $129 million on its four pillars.

“Since most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work, the workplace is such an important and critical place to maintain positive mental health,” she said. “We wanted to ensure that we were both looking at our internal initiatives as well as . . . developing best practices.”

Read: Bell Canada launches new mental-health support programs

In 2010, Bell was seeing its mental health-related short-term disability claims increase year over year, with mental-health claims representing a growing share of its overall STD claims. One in six employees relapsed upon their return to work following a mental health-related STD leave. Just 12 per cent of employees were using the company’s employee assistance program.

“One thing we always mentioned to other organizations that are looking to pursue this journey is that if you start with a baseline assessment, you will notice that there’s already a number of strong business cases for implementing a workplace mental-health program,” said Mielnik. “The alternative — of doing nothing — is actually a much greater risk.”  

As part of Bell Canada’s program, it welcomed employees to have an “ongoing conversation within the workplace” to reduce stigma around mental-health challenges and participated in the development and early adoption of Canada’s voluntary national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace.

The standard includes expert guidance for addressing mental health and mental illness in the workplace and establishes a management system and review process for measuring the success of workplace initiatives.

Throughout Bell Canada’s journey, the company identified five elements that are key to a psychologically healthy workplace: a mental-health strategy, awareness campaigns, support and services, workplace practices and programs and measurement and evaluation.

Read: Bell Let’s Talk Day: Employers supporting staff amid pandemic stresses

The company’s awareness campaigns include the flagship Bell Let’s Talk day in January and mental-health awareness weeks in May and October, as well as other assorted workshops and seminars on a variety of topics. “We continue to receive really great feedback from employees commenting on how these events have helped them better understand how to achieve positive mental health,” said Mielnik.

It has taken a “continuum of care” approach to its supports and services, which involves offerings that address prevention, as well as support and treatment, she said. The company offers an EAP and digital tools, the latter of which are well-used: the company has seen 32,000 consultations and visits to its virtual health-care program, with close to eight per cent mental health-related.

Bell Canada also enhanced its benefits plan to offer unlimited mental-health coverage for employers and their families, with covered practitioners including licensed psychologists, psychotherapists, family therapists, counsellors and social workers. “We wanted to ensure we removed those financial barriers that may be deterring individuals from seeking support,” she said.

The organization also sees mental-health training for leadership as a key part of its strategy, added Mielnik. It worked with Queen’s University and LifeWorks Inc. to develop the world’s first workplace mental-health leadership certificate program. To date, more than 14,000 employees — representing 92 per cent of its people leaders — have taken the course. The company also worked with experts to develop guides on behaviour change, substance use and addiction, suicide ideation and conflict management to help leaders engage with employees who may be struggling.

Read: Case study: Bell Canada trains leaders in mental health

Every quarter, Bell Canada measures 90 mental-health performance indicators — including percentage of mental health-related diagnoses, benefits utilization rates and the number of mental health-related work events — to understand the psychological health of the workplace.

Mielnik said the company has seen significant positive results from the program, including increased use of its EAP after targeted awareness campaigns, higher claims for mental-health practitioners, lower mental health-related disability claims and a 50 per cent reduction in relapse and reoccurrence. When the organization partnered with Deloitte on a study examining the rate of return on investment for mental-health programs at 10 organizations, it found Bell Canada was experiencing a $4.10 rate of return on every dollar spent on its programs.

It also saw additional benefits from its mental-health journey, including leadership development, employee engagement, talent attraction and retention and greater diversity and inclusion. “Our investments in mental health have yielded benefits that go well beyond productivity and cost reduction,” said Mielnik. “They also have a tremendous impact on other aspects of our organization.”

Read more coverage of the 2022 Mental Health Summit.