While traditional therapy benefits and virtual-care options are now table stakes in benefits plans, there’s more employers can do to equip employees with the resources to manage their mental-health challenges and build resilience, said Rebecca Smith, director of group life and disability services at Medavie Blue Cross, during Benefits Canada’s 2022 Mental Health Summit in November.

“Building skills to build resilience gives you tools to help when things get tough. It helps you feel better. It helps you cope. It helps things from getting even bigger or further down the mental-health spectrum to crisis.”

Smith noted resilience is “not about being strong all the time,” but about being able to recognize the psychological impact of stressors and deliberately engage in activities that help to manage and cope with those stressors.

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The pandemic exacerbated Canadians’ existing mental-health challenges. The 2021 Benefits Canada Healthare Survey found 21 per cent of plan members are diagnosed with a mental illness and early findings from a five-year study from the Observatoire sur la santé et le mieux-être au travail, sponsored by Medavie, found a third of working Canadians are experiencing some form of mental-health issue.

In addition, LifeWorks Inc.’s September 2022 mental-health index found working Canadians continue to experience “significant mental strain,” the latest in a three-month trend of no improvement in the index.

According to Medavie’s own claims data, the mental-health incidence rate is 18.9 for every 100 covered lives and hits across all age ranges. The average cost per claimant is $357.

Smith noted employees’ mental well-being will span the full mental-health spectrum, ranging from those who are healthy to those who are stressed, struggling or in crisis, so any solution should include supports that target all groups.

Read: 2021 Mental Health Summit: Promoting mental health among all five generations in the workplace

People on the healthy end of the spectrum will benefit from promotion and prevention-type supports that increase their self-management skills and resilience and create supportive environments, said Smith, while prevention and early intervention will help people who are stressed or struggling to recover while remaining at work. And people who are struggling and in crisis will need treatment and recovery supports to reduce their symptoms and help them return to work after a disability leave.

Promotion and prevention supports include community investment, education, wellness resources and employee assistance programs. Treatment options can include psychiatric and internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy, pharmacogenetic testing to help employees quickly identify the right medication for them and an expanded list of covered mental-health practitioners. Effective recovery supports should include active disability case management, early intervention and internet-based CBT.

Employers are increasingly exploring new ways to provide relevant and meaningful support for employees in the early stages of a mental-health issue, said Smith, recommending that employers promote their suite of well-being offerings, encourage employees to take mental-health days as needed and create an environment where employees feel safe discussing how they’re feeling. She pointed out managers also need education and tools to be able to help their direct reports.

“Especially from a pandemic lens, there’s a greater demand for leaders to be more involved on the front lines, enhancing their engagements and listening to employee concerns.”

Read: Employers focusing on engagement, mental health of remote workers

Employers can also share simple tips for resilience, she said, citing options like building and maintaining a social support network; having a “third place” outside of work and home where employees can go to socialize and enjoy hobbies; engaging in volunteer work that offers meaning, purpose and connection to others; maintaining boundaries between personal and work lives; recognizing and proactively addressing their early signs of stress; being physically active; deep breathing; and reducing self-criticism.

Smith also stressed the value of virtual care in supporting mental health. According to research, 75 per cent of virtual-care users said the technology was important in managing their health and 70 per cent said they’d choose virtual health visits if the option was available. Nearly half (48 per cent) of employees are more confident in the digital health solutions that their employer promotes or sponsors.

Read more coverage of the 2022 Mental Health Summit.