While there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel with respect to the coronavirus pandemic and the return to normal life, the stress response from such a rapid and necessary shift in lifestyle has had and will continue to have profound impacts on mental health.

Before the pandemic, Canada was already facing a mental-health crisis, says Dr. Vivian Sapirman, psychiatrist and clinical lead at Teladoc Health, during a Benefits Canada Live webinar in early June. The pandemic amplified and highlighted the crisis, she said, “affording us an opportunity to get employees the right care by using the platforms available to us.”

Read: 2021 Group Benefits Providers Report: Will the rising tide of virtual health-care offerings lift all boats?

Joby McKenzie, Canadian managing director at Teladoc Health, outlined market research from April 2021 that surveyed Canadians to better understand the current pressing issues with respect to mental health. Sharing key takeaways from the survey, she said the adoption of mental-health services is driven by four factors: access, communications, support and reduced stigma around mental health in the workplace.

However, the principle factor is access — virtual mental-health services generate a positive experience, with 91 per cent of people who sought help reporting an improvement in their well-being since the pandemic and nearly a quarter reporting a breakthrough. Similarly, among survey respondents who sought out care, 82 per cent reported a significant increase in work productivity.

These results, said Dr. Sapirman, drive value to plan members and plan sponsors, as they accelerate and improve work performance. The question, then, is how to identify and overcome the barriers that face many employees in seeking service and support on their mental-health journey. As a start, 69 per cent of employees surveyed said they prefer a single app that combines physical and mental-health services, which bodes well for both plan sponsors and members, since physical and mental health are “inextricably linked,” she said, noting virtual care caters to this connection because it treats the whole person by eradicating barriers present in both physical and mental health services.

Dr. Sapirman also clarified that being “mentally healthy” doesn’t always look like being “mentally happy” — the two indicators of mental health are psychological flexibility and tolerance, not the absence, of difficult emotions. “Mental health exists on a spectrum and the spectrum ranges from healthy, reacting, injured and ill.”

Read: 2021 BPS coverage: Virtual health solutions to be default post-pandemic

Being able to ride out the peaks and valleys is more crucial to mental well-being than having consistent peaks, she noted. In fact, the increased feelings of stress, depression and anxiety since the onset of the pandemic are considered normative, rather than aberrant, psychological responses. To leverage healthy coping strategies and self-soothing in the face of difficulty, Dr. Sapirman suggested employers — especially leaders in the workplace — destigmatize these negative feelings and understand that the symptoms of these mental illnesses are indicative of someone who’s struggling and needs support.

Also speaking during the webinar, Kelly Dawson, global disability and leaves specialist and global wellness leader at Shopify Inc., said the global e-commerce company conducted research in 2019, a deep dive to better understand the landscape of employee mental health. The findings were notable, with four main discoveries: the majority of sick leaves in 2019 were mental-health related; the rate of sick leave and incident was trending upwards for each year; not all mental-health care services were globally available to all employees; and most employees were unaware of the services available to them.

Shopify tackled these barriers and ultimately improved the mental health — and therefore the productivity and well-being — of its employees. “When we look at wellness, we look at it holistically and consider all factors, including workspace environment and financial wellness,” said Dawson.

Read: How 5 employers are helping staff battle mental-health challenges

On Jan. 1, 2020, the company increased its paramedical benefits to $2,500 per employee for mental-health coverage, regardless of which level of the plan an employee chooses. It also added the Teledoc Health’s mental-health navigator program, showing its employees how to seek the proper care. “Those were the big changes and the second thing we needed to do was to communicate,” she said.

Before implementing the changes, Shopify’s system was more reactive than preventative, said Dawson, noting employees were only provided with resources when they sought them out, rather than being offered the care before they needed help. “We wanted to remove the stigma and start talking about it differently and we started referring to it as mental health, not mental illness.”

This allowed for a maintenance, rather than reparative, approach, with mental-health sick leaves decreasing by five per cent after the shift, she said.

Dawson also addressed the importance of adaptation and proportionalism in mental-health care, emphasizing that mental health manifests differently in every person. For that reason, I must be tailored to the consumer in a way that addresses specific needs. “Treatment plans are not one-size-fits-all.”

Read: Meeting the growing need for mental health with virtual care

“No outliers should be left behind,” added Dr. Sapirman. “People who aren’t comfortable with treatment, even people who do not have regular access to [the] internet — we must be aware of these barriers and then tackle them.”

When it came to selecting a partner for expanding its mental-health care, Dawson noted Shopify wanted a solution that was easy for employees, “to reduce the friction of getting that care. No. 2 is that we needed a vendor that prioritized the employee experience and was open to feedback in working with us.”

Most importantly, however, was the third consideration “we needed someone who was just as engaged as we are in supporting Shopify’s employee wellness.”

With a focus on inclusivity, access, communications and mandatory mental-health training for employers, Dawson and Dr. Sapirman agreed it’s more likely that return to work will have fewer negative impacts on employee mental health. In addition, they noted, figuring out a struggling employee’s warning signs and truly understanding the definition of mental health will contribute to a more mentally seamless return to normal life and normal pace.

“Leaders should see themselves as ‘normalizers-in-chief,’” said Dawson, adding “it’s OK to struggle, and it is good for employers to be open about the problems they might be having themselves.”

Read: Webinar: Meeting the growing demand for mental-health services caused by the pandemic