An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — and nowhere is that more true than when it comes to workplace mental-health supports, said Colleen Adams, manager of health and digital product solutions at Medavie Blue Cross, during a session at Benefits Canada’s 2021 Mental Health Summit.

Even before the pandemic, the cost of poor mental health on the Canadian economy was a staggering $20 billion and mental-health challenges were the leading cause of disability claims for Canadian employers. Since the onset of the crisis, according to one study, 84 per cent of employees reported their mental health had worsened as they’ve dealt with existing and new stressors, from financial worries to caregiver fatigue to overwhelming workloads. 

Read: Shifting workplace norms causing mental distress for Canadian workers: report

“The more we invest [in mental-health supports] the more we reduce the impact —absenteeism, presenteeism and disability,” said Adams.

All employees sit somewhere along a “mental-health spectrum” from healthy to crisis-mode and their placement can change depending on the day, the week or the year. She suggested that employer benefits plans offer a range of solutions that address all of the needs along the spectrum, from mental-health promotion to treatment and recovery.

“If we can get really good at mental-health promotion and increasing psychological well-being, competence and resilience, as employers and insurers, we can help avoid or lesson the impacts of progressing along the spectrum through to struggling or crisis mode.”  

The first thing employers can do, said Adams, is to create and promote a supportive culture by talking about mental health at all levels of the organization, normalize access to treatment and reduce the stigma of seeking help.

Read: Stigma preventing employees from seeking mental-health help: report

It’s also important to recognize that one size doesn’t fit all employees’ needs — especially when it comes to the five generations in the workplace.

Adams shared data from Medavie’s block of business that illustrated the top five extended health-care benefits for each of the five generations currently in the workforce. For Gen Z employees, mental-health practitioner spending took the top spot, while it ranked at No. 2 for millennials and, for Gen X employees, it dropped to the fifth spot. For baby boomers and the traditionalists, mental-health practitioner spending didn’t even make the cut.

She suggested Gen Z and millennial employees may be better at recognizing and addressing their mental-health needs, thanks to the destigmatization of mental-health care through efforts such as the Bell Let’s Talk campaign. Meanwhile, older employees may value in-person solutions while their younger peers, who are digital natives, consider virtual-care options to be “essential” — an example of the “evolving needs” across generations. 

“Is your benefits plan evolving? Do your members have coverage and access to what they need? We want to make sure we’re seeing this utilization in the extended health care for all generations.”

Read: Sounding Board: How to support millennials’ growing use of mental-health services

Adams suggested that employers’ toolbox of mental-health supports include a broad range of offerings and modalities of treatment, from mobile apps to employee assistance programs to virtual-care programs with direct access to mental-health professionals. Wellness portals with health risk assessments and even pharmacogenetic testing to ensure employees get started on the right medicine and dosage can be a valuable part of the benefits plan.

Employers can also promote mindfulness solutions to help employees build resilience to stressors and the ability to bounce back from stressful life events, she said. Mindfulness meditation focuses on being intensely aware of sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment, and includes breathing methods, guided imagery and other practices that help employees relax their body and mind to reduce stress.

“Mindulness can help reduce rumination, reduce stress and depression, decrease anxiety, negative thoughts and emotional reactivity.” 

It’s also key for employers to think about how to deliver these solutions to employees across all work environments, added Adams, including frontline staff, those working out in the field and employees working at home or in a hybrid environment.

Read more coverage of the 2021 Mental Health Summit.