Treatment for mental health isn’t effectively covered by public health systems, which means care for chronic disease management and mental health — by and large — falls into the lap of employers and employees, according to Adam Kelly, CloudMD’s executive vice-president and chief commercial officer, speaking at Benefits Canada’s 2022 Mental Health Summit.

Organizations are seeing rising disability costs, which have been accelerated throughout the coronavirus pandemic, he noted. This timeline is expected to continue over the next couple of years, with mental health the primary condition for an increasing number of claims.

As it stands, employers are experiencing significant gaps when it comes to mental-health care, said Kelly. “We’re in an unprecedented period of demand relative to supply. It’s a different landscape than it was three, four, five years ago. We’re seeing longer and longer wait times to access.”

Read: Mental health-related disability rises among Canadians during pandemic: Stats Can

Employers aren’t doing enough to help employees who are dealing with chronic disease, as the fundamental programs they’ve put in place aren’t equipped to support these conditions, he said, noting it’s part of the vendor community’s responsibility to figure out how to fix this and to figure out new ways of doing things. In order to do so, they must leverage resources in a more effective way.

In addition, Kelly said employee assistance programs aren’t designed to treat depression and anxiety. Instead, they were built off a very specific model of therapy that’s intended to be short term in nature. The people who are trained to deal with chronic conditions have specialized treatment and the experience that must go along it, he added.

Preventing employees from getting sick and trying to prevent them from going on disability are two different things, noted Kelly. For employers, it would be naïve to think they can stop people from developing mental-health conditions because these will always exist within an employee ecosystem. “We need to give people the tools to better manage their resiliency and stress to help them remain strong players in the workforce. But if our goal is to try and prevent individuals from prolonged absenteeism, short-term disability, long-term disability and turnover, we need to rethink what we really mean by prevention.”

Read: Mental-health related absence, disability still major challenges for Canadian employers: survey

That said, when it comes to mental-health care, Kelly said he believes core areas are fundamentally in need of improvement. Since everyone is on their own journey, they need to know where to start and what’s available to them, including extended health benefits and proper psychological assessments. Employers need to make access easier, which they can do by creating a platform that provides universal access, he added. “Fostering better access to help and centralizing that mechanism is a really critical step for employers.”

As well, easuring the outcomes of mental-health initiatives is crucial, Kelly said. Just because people use these programs, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re getting healthier. If organizations are really focused on disability and helping to drive the associated costs down, he added, the ultimate outcome of these programs is for people to stay at work or get better faster. “Vendors need to be tracking these as part of the experience in order to see whether they’re having an impact.”

There need to be coordinated programs in place to prevent absence or long-term disability, Kelly said. “We’re way too late three or six months into the game,” he added. “Ideally, we’re doing this at the outset when people are starting to exhibit early onset absenteeism. We need to help people, provide them with access to psychological assessment earlier and let them engage with the medical community to understand their risk.”

Read more coverage of the 2022 Mental Health Summit.