The unmet medical needs across Canada are substantial, with the number of Canadians using cannabis for medical needs — close to 15 per cent of individuals over age 16 — one of the best barometers, said Dr. Steven Grover, professor of medicine at McGill University, during Benefits Canada’s 2022 Mental Health Summit in November.

“For me, that’s a red flag. This tells us that conventional medicine and health are simply not taking care of these issues and that people are looking for alternative solutions.”

To adequately address mental health, it’s important to look at physical issues as well, said Grover, noting these two go hand in hand. Indeed, many people with mental-health issues also have a common physical condition like arthritis, chronic pain, migraines or irritable bowel syndrome — and the coronavirus pandemic certainly exasperated these, he added.

Read: Employees with chronic health conditions facing challenges during pandemic: survey

As a result, people’s mental and physical health is suffering. Coming out of the pandemic, there’s an opportunity to reassess individuals and recognize there’s a lot of room for improvement, noted Grover. Referring to Statistics Canada data from March 2022, he said the proportion of mental health-related disabilities in individuals aged 25 to 54 increased 50 per cent during the pandemic, with the percentage of people who said their mental health had deteriorated was much greater.

Digital health is a common solution, said Grover, but it tends to fall short on engagement and accountability. He also doesn’t believe it’s a substitute for face-to-face interactions with physicians or other health professionals. However, the strengths of digital health includes enhanced tracking, something that isn’t usually available with clinical health-care delivery. “It allows us to track what individuals are doing on a daily basis, which ultimately informs results. Most things taught in the arena of behaviour change require practice. If people don’t do so, they probably won’t recognize the full benefits.”

In terms of critical metrics for successful wellness programs, Grover recommended organizations measure and evaluate. He also suggested including a fun factor because, if these initiatives aren’t fun, employees will stop using them. Behaviour change is connected to the level of employee engagement and adherence. “What we don’t recognize is that so many of our programs, while we think they’re wonderful, don’t engage the number of employees we hope.”

Read: What are the ingredients of a successful wellness program?

Grover also suggested employers build intrinsic motivation and help employees recognize the value of making changes. In order to do so, he recommended they build narratives that provide employees with meaning that will keep them coming back. Indeed, the success of a wellness program hinges on engagement — and anything less than 30 per cent over a three-year period means organizations aren’t building a community of wellness or changing their corporate culture. “There’s no point in engaging people in a program that has no possibility of working.”

Wellness initiatives also need to be flexible and customized for each setting, he said, since no two workplaces are alike. For any organization, it’s a journey to understand what will be successful in its environment. And most importantly, improving employee health must be the primary goal at the heart of these programs, said Grover.

Read more coverage of the 2022 Mental Health Summit.