Women were more likely to have suffered psychologically during the coronavirus pandemic as they faced increased caregiving responsibilities and many were hit financially by the ‘she-cession,’ making it particularly important for employers to support their mental health.

“There’s no doubt the pandemic has hit us all hard,” said Harriet Ekperigin, vice-president of mental health at Green Shield Canada, during Benefits Canada’s 2021 Mental Health Summit. “But it’s important for us to acknowledge that women are a backbone of society and it benefits us all to get women back on track and to get women back into the workforce. Because women win, everybody wins.”

Read: Women in Canada’s benefits, pension industries discuss gender equity, reversing pandemic-fueled ‘she-cession’

Citing a recent survey, Ekperigin noted more than half (55 per cent) of Canadian women said their mental health has worsened due to the pandemic, compared to 38 per cent of men. Almost half (49 per cent) of women said they felt very worried, very anxious and had difficulty sleeping since March 2020. The pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on Black and Indigenous people and people of colour, though data is lacking.

On top of that, she added, almost 500,000 Canadian women who lost their jobs during the pandemic have remained largely unemployed and 100,000 have left the workforce — a figure 10-times higher than that of men.

For employers looking to help improve women’s mental health, Ekperigin said the first step is to evaluate how mental health and mental illness are perceived within the organization. “When the CEO and when your senior leadership talk about their mental-health issues, it gives everybody else the latitude to talk about it. We know when people talk about mental-health issues, there is a feeling of acceptance and that acceptance actually drives others who might hear that to seek mental-health supports.”

Read: How 5 employers are helping staff battle mental-health challenges

The pandemic seems to have led to a broader acceptance of mental-health support, she said. Previously, two in three Canadians said they wouldn’t seek help for their mental-health needs, but during the pandemic, one in five were seeking support. For women in particular, Green Shield Canada’s data showed a sharp increase around April 2020 in female plan members filing claims for mental-health medications, followed by a decrease in September 2020, which correlated to waves of the pandemic.

Women also filed about 20 per cent more mental-health counselling claims in the early stages of the pandemic, followed by a dip again. In early 2021, said Ekperigin, their claims filing patterns changed in line with employers adjusting their benefits plans to allow employees to see a broader list of mental-health professionals. The change has also helped many women stretch their annual mental-health spend and get more support from professionals such as social workers or psychotherapists.

She encouraged employers that haven’t already done so to widen their list of mental-health providers. While psychologists and psychiatrists can be helpful for plan members in diagnosing mental illnesses, research has demonstrated that social workers and other mental-health professionals who practice talk therapy are just as capable of addressing patients’ mood and anxiety symptoms.

Read: A field guide to the spectrum of Canadian mental-health professionals

“Look at your policies and see what doesn’t make sense and how you can make it easier for women to access services,” said Ekperigin.

Employers can also reduce barriers to access for women by supporting flexible working hours to allow them to take time to attend counselling in person or virtually and by reviewing employee assistance programs to ensure their services address the wide range of employee needs.

She also suggested that employers review return-to-work practices to ensure that flexible working schedules and work-life balance are integrated, which will help women who take leave to get back into the swing of things more gradually. It’s “equally as important,” she noted, to review hiring practices to encourage more women to apply and to support them through the hiring and on-boarding processes.

Read: More work to be done on workplace gender equality: survey

Employers can also check on employees’ well-being through surveys and feedback, using the resulting data as a starting point from which to make improvements. It’s something Green Shield Canada did earlier this year.

“We did a temperature check on our employees to see where people are at in terms of their work-life balance and in terms of their mental health,” said Ekperigin. “What we have now is a baseline and something to work towards.”

She said the insurer’s chief executive officer has been vocal about supporting female employees in particular with the support they need to remain in their roles, something she urged other plan sponsors to consider.

Read more coverage of the 2021 Mental Health Summit.