A fifth (22 per cent) of Canadian benefits plan members report their mental health over the past year was generally poor, more than twice the percentage (11 per cent) who said their overall health was poor, according to the 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey.

The survey, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, found this percentage jumps to 75 per cent among respondents who also described their overall health as poor. It also found 40 per cent of plan members reported their mental health over the past year was generally excellent or very good and 39 per cent said it was good.

Job satisfaction also appeared to strongly influence assessments of mental health. Nearly half (47 per cent) of plan members who are dissatisfied with their jobs reported poor mental health, compared to 16 per cent among those who are satisfied. 

Read: A spotlight on six employers’ winning mental-health strategies

In better news, the survey also found the percentage of plan members who experienced high or extremely high levels of stress on a typical day in the past three months is dropping — that figure was 27 per cent in 2022, compared to 35 per cent a year ago and 30 per cent in early 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic. 

However, plan members in poor mental health (56 per cent) and poor overall health (45 per cent) were much more likely to be experiencing high levels of stress. 

When it comes to the sources of stress, personal finances (35 per cent), workload (30 per cent) and work-life balance (30 per cent) continue to top the list, followed by personal relationships (27 per cent) and health concerns (26 per cent), whereas last year they were somewhat greater sources of stress than work-life balance. 

Not unexpectedly, interactions with people at work (17 per cent) has dropped in significance as a main source of stress compared to before the pandemic (27 per cent), as did commuting (11 per cent in 2022, compared to 16 per cent before the pandemic). 

Read: 73% of employees experiencing high or moderate levels of stress: survey

“Responses for stress levels over the years suggest a move from crisis mode into more of a sustained burnout or sustained strain mode,” said Megan Douglas, senior vice-president and chief brand and commercial officer at Saskatchewan Blue Cross and a member of the survey’s advisory board, in the report. “This is an interesting nuance considering the new stresses brought on by working at home and potential cultural disconnection or readjustments through returns to the office. How leaders manage proactive resilience in their workforce is now increasingly important.” 

For the first time, the survey asked plan members and plan sponsors if they feel their workplace environment supports mental wellness. Three-quarters (75 per cent) of plan members and 86 per cent of plan sponsors agreed it does. Among plan members, however, agreement was much higher among those who also said their workplace has a wellness culture — 91 per cent versus 25 per cent who don’t have a wellness culture. 

When the work environment supports mental health, 45 per cent of members described their personal mental health as excellent or very good, compared to 23 per cent among members without such supports. Similarly, 52 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively, described their overall health as excellent or very good.

Nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of plan members indicated their employer is effective in helping employees manage stress, up from 50 per cent when this question was last asked in 2017. When the same question was put to plan sponsors, 78 per cent indicated they effectively help employees manage stress, up significantly from 2017 (49 per cent). 

Read: Award finalists discuss mental health, enhanced communications amid pandemic

However, a gap emerges when respondents were asked specifically about depression, anxiety or other mental-health conditions. About half (49 per cent) of plan members said their employer effectively helps employees manage these conditions, well behind the 75 per cent of plan sponsors that said the same. Ten per cent of members didn’t know, leaving 40 per cent who felt their employer isn’t effective. 

The number of plan members who said their employer isn’t effective in helping employees manage mental-health conditions soared to 79 per cent among those who felt their work environment didn’t support mental health.

In additional, the survey found more than half (58 per cent) of plan sponsors said they have training programs to help managers and/or employees recognize and respond to signs of depression or other mental-health conditions, up from 48 per cent in 2021 and significantly up from 37 per cent in 2018, when the question was first asked. 

Employee training programs drove the increase, climbing to 44 per cent from 34 per cent in 2021. Forty-one per cent of plan sponsors offered training for management, virtually unchanged from 2021 (40 per cent).

Read: Workplace mental-health training on the rise: Sanofi survey

The survey also found a quarter (24 per cent) of plan sponsors recently increased their maximum level of coverage for mental-health counselling, up from 19 per cent in 2021 and 18 per cent in 2020. An additional 28 per cent indicated they plan to increase their maximum, up from 18 per cent in 2021 and comparable to 25 per cent in 2020. 

The average annual maximum for mental-health counselling was $2,006, up from $1,294 in 2021. Expressed as a median, the amount dropped to $750, with 61 per cent of plan sponsors having a maximum of $1,000 and 29 per cent having a maximum of more than $1,000, including four per cent with a maximum exceeding $10,000. 

“The data on mental health supports what we’re seeing in the market: more employers are taking a multi-pronged, full-spectrum approach to mental health,” said Alexandra Laflamme-Sanders, assistant vice-president of products and solutions at Sun Life and an advisory board member, in the report. “An employee assistance program, mental-health training, virtual care, increased maximums and an expanded list of eligible practitioners — in their totality, these factors overcome numerous barriers to prevention and treatment.” 

Read: Employers enhancing mental-health benefits over next three years, finds survey