While benefits plan members are experiencing levels of stress that impact their productivity at work, a growing number feel their employer is supporting their mental health, according to the 2020 Sanofi Canada health-care survey.

The survey found 37 per cent of employees said they’ve felt physically ill due to overwhelming workplace stress in the last year. That number was even higher among respondents who said they’re dissatisfied with their job (63 per cent) and those who felt their interactions at work were a main source of stress (52 per cent). Employees between the ages of 18 and 34 were much more likely (42 per cent) to say they’ve felt physically ill from stress than those 55 and older (23 per cent).

Read: Employers, employees both play a role in battle against stress

Thirty per cent of plan members said they experienced high levels of stress on a typical workday in the past three months, rising to 52 per cent for plan members who said they aren’t satisfied with their job and 48 per cent for those who said they’re in poor personal health. Again, plan members age 18 to 34 were more likely (34 per cent) to report high levels of stress than those age 55 and older (22 per cent).

As well, 36 per cent of plan members said they arrived late or left work early because of stress at least once in the past year. Those who reported doing so arrived late or left early an average of 4.9 times. Some 41 per cent of plan members said they took at least one full sick day because of stress and those who did missed an average of 5.1 days out of the year.

Age and health were key factors in both cases. Benefits plan members in poor health were more likely (45 per cent) to say they’d arrived late or left early due to stress and did so an average of 9.4 days per year; they were also more likely (53 per cent) to take at least one full sick day, taking an average of 10.9 sick days due to stress in the past year. Similarly, 47 per cent of employees between age 18 and 34 said they arrived late or left early and 50 per cent said they took at least one sick day due to stress in the past year.

“What really struck us on the advisory board were the differences between younger and older plan members,” said Marie-Chantal Côté, vice-president of market development for group benefits at Sun Life Canada, during a webinar last week. “Thirty-four per cent of plan members aged 18 to 34 experienced high levels of stress in a typical day over the past three months, compared to 22 per cent of members aged 55 and older.

Read: The link between presenteeism, financial stress, paid sick days

“Forty-two per cent of younger employees described their workplace stress as so overwhelming in the past year that they felt physically ill, compared to 23 per cent of older employees. The differences are especially compelling when we consider the impact: 47 per cent of younger plan members arrived late or left work early due to stress, compared to just 17 per cent of older plan members. And 50 per cent of younger members took at least one sick day versus just 21 per cent of older members.”

In terms of the top sources of stress, plan members also cited their personal finances (39 per cent), workload (34 per cent) and work-life balance (32 per cent). More than a quarter (27 per cent) said interactions with people at work were a source of stress, while 23 per cent cited personal relationships.

Looking specifically at work-related stress, 36 per cent said the work environment — the physical space, supervisor and co-workers — was the stressor, while 30 per cent said it was the job itself. The remaining 35 per cent said both were main causes of stress. Employees between the ages of 18 and 34 were more likely (42 per cent) than employees age 55 and older (28 per cent) to say the environment was the main source of work stress.

However, many plan members said they feel their employers are trying to help. Nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) said their employer effectively helps employees manage stress, an increase from 42 per cent in 2011. Among plan members who said they’re experiencing high levels of stress, 53 per cent said their employer was effectively helping employees manage.

More than half (51 per cent) of plan sponsors said they have a mental-health training program set up for managers and/or employees to help them recognize signs of mental illness and respond appropriately.

Read: Head to head: Which is more disruptive: absenteeism or presenteeism?

Almost a fifth (18 per cent) of employers said they recently increased the maximum amount of coverage for mental health-related counselling services such as psychiatry and psychotherapy, with unionized workforces (29 per cent) and public sector employers (29 per cent) more likely to have made increases. A further 25 per cent said they plan to do so in the future. According to Sanofi Canada, the current median annual maximum coverage for mental-health counselling services is $1,011, but the majority (68 per cent) of plan sponsor respondents said they have a maximum of less than $1,000.

“Cost, stigma and issues around access can be huge barriers for mental health,” said Mark Rolnick, vice-president of payor partnerships and plan sponsor innovation at Shoppers Drug Mart and a member of Sanofi Canada’s advisory board. “Some plan sponsors are prepared to increase their paramedical maximum for mental-health providers, which is a good thing to help address the cost barrier. However, we can help more people while addressing stigma and access challenges by considering the proven benefits of scalable digital solutions.”

Read: How can plan sponsors work out the kinks in paramedical coverage?