Improving employee mental-health benefits is good for everyone

Whether it direct or indirect, mental illness affects everyone. Beyond an individual’s personal suffering, which can range from mild to severe, the effects are also felt by their families, as well as their employers. Fortunately, many organizations are looking for new ways to proactively care for their employees’ whole health, including their mental health.

Roughly half a million Canadians miss work due to mental illness in any given week. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has estimated — when factoring in lost productivity, mental-health benefits, prescription drugs and treatments — the economic cost of mental illness in Canada is $51 billion a year. Even when employers provide benefits, many employees don’t take action because they find the process of accessing those benefits too confusing or they’re afraid of negative repercussions.

Read: Reinventing support for Canadians with mental illness

Compounding the problem, the Canadian health-care system can’t provide sufficient access to qualified care for people suffering from mental illness. Most family doctors, for example, aren’t properly trained or equipped to treat mental-health disorders, and a shortage of qualified mental-health specialists can leave patients waiting months for appointments. Employers are increasingly seeking new thinking from benefits providers to help them support employees, cut their health-care costs and enhance their ability to attract and retain top talent.

Here are five important considerations to help develop a successful employee wellness program that prioritizes mental health.

1. Base it on data. By collecting and analyzing organizational data instead of relying on anecdotal evidence and assumptions about employees and their needs, employers can first identify gaps in the benefits programs, clarify how mental-health benefits shortcomings may be impacting business performance and help determine future return on investment outcomes.

Read: How the Health Benefit Trust of Alberta redesigned its mental-health program

2. Consider all options. Analyzing data will also allow employers to address any gaps. Many new solutions are available today that go beyond simple stress management programs, including ways to optimize drug treatment through genetic testing to see how an individual patient will respond to specific medications, and virtual cognitive behavioural therapy that can help employees cope with such things as anxiety, depression, addiction and low self-esteem.

3. Include everyone in benefits. Employee well-being programs should focus on prevention as much as treatment, and support people at every level of the mental-health continuum. This includes helping employees who want to proactively protect their mental health, as well as those already on disability who need help getting back to work.

4. Choose vendors with care. With a clear idea of the gaps being addressed, carefully investigate the choices for benefits and well-being partners to ensure they can deliver what’s promised. Also, ensure vendors are working in tandem towards organizational goals rather than in silos that may overlap and confuse employees.

Read: Mindful benefits plan design should consider mental health

5. Evaluate. Monitoring results and measuring outcomes against benchmarks will help show what’s working, what’s not and which programs should be adjusted to ensure employees’ needs are being met and true return on investment is achieved. 

Mental-health issues are a society-wide challenge and employers have a role to play in a society-wide response. While this challenge won’t be solved overnight, taking these steps can put organizations on the path towards delivering effective mental-health benefits that will build a healthier, happier and more productive workforce.