More than two years into a gruelling pandemic, with many Canadians facing the added challenge of navigating a return to the office, companies are embracing a range of approaches to help workers coping with mental-health challenges.

But experts say lip service remains a hazard that too many boardrooms still fall back on. A top-to-bottom shift in corporate attitude is key to easing emotional strain in the workplace, where mental health should be viewed as essential to success rather than a side note, says Denis Trottier, chief mental-health officer at KPMG Canada.

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“The goal is not to turn you and your entire team into doctors so you can diagnose people. It’s to make tools accessible to your colleagues, to listen to you non-judgmentally and encourage you to access resources.”

Corporate accountability is key. Rather than relegating mental health to a corner of human resources, he says large companies should dedicate a separate team to it.

The Canada Life Assurance Co. has experienced a surge in requests for mental-health coverage under its employee assistance programs since the pandemic began, says executive vice-president Brad Fedorchuk. The top three concerns were personal stress, workplace stress and anxiety.

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While demand for EAP services at Desjardins Group initially decreased at the start of the pandemic, activity levels proceeded to rise 20 per cent between March 2020 and February 2021. Call volumes tripled between summer and fall, says spokesman Jean-Benoit Turcotti.

While employers are under increasing pressure to retain employees in this job seekers’ market, advocates say some employers have yet to fully accept the importance of responding to the angst, uncertainty and sense of perpetual limbo that weighs on many employees in the wake of the pandemic.

“Unlike physical health, there seems to be a lot less patience and tolerance for things that impact our mental health,” says Troy Winters, senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees. “Are the employers doing anything? Generally very little.”

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Rather than just an employer-provided gym membership or virtual yoga, tools should include mental-health surveys and webinars or health and safety committees that identify points of undue stress and emotional tripwires. Diversity, equity and inclusion committees also play a role, he says.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada unveiled a guide last month to help managers face the “epidemic of mental-health problems” affecting millions of Canadian workers, says Michel Rodrigue, the commission’s chief executive officer. “It’s not a checkmark exercise that ‘I’ve done this, OK, we’re done, thank you, we move on to something else.’ It is really a journey you have to commit to.”

The commission’s tool kit offers approaches to everything from onboarding new staff members — through buddy systems and team-wide welcomes, for example — to how to recognize cues of declining mental health and the best ways to respond, on top of protecting one’s own psychological well-being. “When you take flights, they always caution you to put your own oxygen mask on first prior to helping someone else,” he says. “Managers need to protect their own mental health.”

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PricewaterhouseCoopers has opted not to mandate a return to the office for its 7,300-plus workers. It has also added five extra-long weekends with paid Mondays or Fridays off and redesigned its benefits program to boost mental-health coverage by providing an EAP, an additional $2,500 mental-health benefit and a well-being and lifestyle benefit that can go toward a range of services.

“We also had our leaders share some of their own personal stories and struggles so that we could really talk about normalizing that conversation,” says managing partner Lana Paton. “During COVID, what we really saw as everybody went remote, it was very easy for home life to start to bleed into work life and vice versa.”

“Maybe it’s as simple as getting a personal phone so that come 5 p.m. you disconnect,” says Trottier, noting workplace supports can also go too far if it sounds like training or yet another thing employees have to do. “The trick is to make it about them.”

Read: Employers prioritizing mental health, permanent hybrid work 1.5 years into pandemic