This year, Canadian employers are marking Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day by addressing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the mental health of employees.

The annual event, which began in 2010 to encourage discussions about mental health, is built on four pillars: mental-health research, workplace leadership, ending stigmas around mental health and advocating for mental-health care and access, says Monika Mielnik, director of diversity, equity and inclusion and mental health at Bell.

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Since 2010, the telecommunications company has provided training on mental-health issues to more than 18,000 of its employees and 13,000 managers, she says. “We’ve seen that, over the last 12 years of this initiative, we’ve been able to reduce short-term disability related to mental health by 20 per cent. We’ve also reduced reoccurrence rates by 50 per cent.”

In addition to employee training, Bell is supporting employee mental health through enhanced benefits offerings. “This year, we enhanced our psychological care benefit to provide unlimited coverage for mental-health services such as psychologists, psychotherapists and couples’ counselling. This is important because it provides our team members with the additional support and furthers our commitment to being a leader in this space. In addition, we’re also always evolving our services such as internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy and digital support services.”

These measures have resulted in Bell employees becoming more comfortable talking about mental health and reaching out for help, she notes. “In particular over the last two years, the additional focus on mental health has encouraged those who previously weren’t comfortable [talking about mental health] to go and seek support.”

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Pickering, Ont.-based Municipal Property Assessment Corp. also participates in Bell Let’s Talk Day as part of an ongoing discussion about mental health in the workplace. Nicole McNeill, the organization’s president and chief administrative officer, says a 2019 employee survey revealed a need to address employees’ mental health, prompting the launch of regular sessions that cover mental-health topics. As the pandemic put more of a focus on mental health, the sessions began taking place monthly.

“[The sessions] are led by executives and we have an open dialogue about mental health. One of the things we’ve tried to do is get rid of the stigma. Our employees aren’t afraid to talk about mental health anymore.”

The MPAC offers a number of mental-health benefits to employees through its employee assistance program, including counselling and resources, says McNeill. She notes the pandemic has also resulted in the organization taking additional measures to address mental health, including hiring an in-house wellness coordinator to lead guided meditation sessions and wellness days and to embed wellness practices into the workplace.

It has also taken steps to encourage employees to take breaks while working remotely, she adds. “Our [information technology] department configured all of our meetings so you would have to manually override a Teams meeting to make it the full hour or half hour. What was happening was everyone was scheduling meetings back to back, but you need to take a break in between meetings, whether that’s going for a walk or refilling your tea.”

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In an emailed statement to Benefits Canada, Phillip Kotanidis, chief human resources officer at Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital, said this year’s Bell Let’s Talk Day is providing the organization with an opportunity to address the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of heath-care workers. The hospital provides a number of mental-health benefits and resources, including counselling through its EAP and a dedicated pandemic wellness section on its employee intranet.

“With the pandemic approaching its two-year mark, we recognize the added pressure placed on health-care workers each and every day and recognize that it’s OK to not always be OK.”

And with employees’ mental health under continued strain from an ongoing pandemic, empathetic communication is key for employers, says Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

“We’ve had to create a new structure and routine several times throughout the pandemic. There’s uncertainty and fluidity and workplace changes due to technology and remote work [and] we’ve seen the importance of employees’ morale and engagement. . . . Employees have different needs and roles. Some might have childcare issues while others have concerns about commuting or working remotely. People may feel burnt out with the juggling of a workload and personal responsibilities.”

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