While the vast majority of Canadians say the coronavirus pandemic is impacting their mental health, just 60 per cent are receiving the treatment or social support they need.

“We’ve asked them, what are the barriers? Why aren’t they accessing the resources?” said Sophie Ouellet, vice-president of business development at Sun Life Canada, during a session on the fourth day of Benefits Canada’s 2020 Plan Sponsor Week earlier this month.

The top reasons, according to a Sun Life survey conducted in April, are affordability, accessibility and stigma. “So while we’ve made a lot of progress as a society on that, it’s clear it’s embarrassment or people don’t feel comfortable talking about that in particular.”

Read: 56% of Canadians say coronavirus negatively impacting mental health: survey

Digging a bit deeper, Sun Life has seen mental-health incidences increase in the past few years, she added, noting it accounts for 30 per cent of the claims seen by the insurer.

So what can employers do? Ouellet suggested they start by understanding the barriers, such as awareness of treatment and how to access it, issues around wait times and cost and the pervasive issue of stigma.

“Many people might say, ‘We’ve made so much headway on that and we’re so much better,’ but when we survey people, if they suffer from a physical illness, more than half are willing to talk to their employer about it, but when it comes to mental health, we’re at about 25 per cent.”

When facing challenges or barriers, there’s always a solution to be found, said Ouellet, noting the market has already come up with many options. The first solution is within an organization’s workplace culture. “We want to get to a place where we’ve normalized the conversation, people feel comfortable talking about it, they’re hearing about it from their leaders, so it just becomes part of the workplace.”

Read: Considering how mental-health support, accommodation is changing

Employers must have a strategy and an action plan so they can make the right changes, she added, including support from leadership, people managers and all employees. “Then you can get to a judgement-free environment where people feel comfortable talking about it and you can . . . make sure people at risk can access the resources they need.”

Another important solution is plan design — ensuring the benefits plan includes the right services but also the appropriate maximums for coverage, she said. “We usually see the mental-health services are covered with the paramedical services, all under an umbrella and with a maximum that covers all of them, which could be a barrier from a cost perspective.”

Employers can also consider virtual care, suggested Ouellet, noting the industry was already on that path before the coronavirus crisis. “The pandemic has really accelerated that. People can now utilize services and reach their treatment practitioners on their mobile and online. I think that’s a great solution that we have out there to really make sure people don’t have to wait too much and, if they don’t feel comfortable going out to get the treatment, they can get it online.”

Read: Sun Life, Dialogue partner on free virtual care for plan members

Virtual care is here to stay, she noted, referring to options like online walk-in clinics, cognitive behavioural therapy and virtual medical exams. “All of this has been brought to the forefront and are a great way to help employees who are in need. As well, there’s a lot of online content you can make available to your employees and people managers to help them manage through that.”

Ouellet also emphasized the effectiveness of early intervention, which is important in all disabilities.

“We all play a very important role in making sure we bring the right solutions to our workplaces and that we share them with the employees, that they know when to access them — we don’t want them to be on disability to start accessing them, we need to make sure they’re accessible to the people who are at work and at risk, so we can intervene as fast as we can and then make sure they don’t go on disability and we’re able to manage the issues they’re having.”

All of the 2020 Plan Sponsor Week sessions are available on-demand at benefitscanada.com/webinars.

Read: 60% of Canadians with mental-health concerns not using workplace support tools