Canadian women are bearing the brunt of a gender health gap that has led to poor understanding and heightened stigma around their unique health needs and worse physical and mental-health outcomes over time.

However, there are ways for employers to help, said Sam Mikail, director of mental-health solutions for group claims at Sun Life Financial Inc., during a session at Benefits Canada’s 2023 Mental Health Summit.

A 2023 Sun Life report found that, while women make up half of the Canadian population, their health needs haven’t been adequately researched, recognized or supported. The insurer’s claims data also found women have higher rates of disability claims than men due to adjustment, mood and anxiety disorders, a trend that became more accentuated during the coronavirus pandemic.

Read: Canadian women share what evolving benefits and workplace policies mean to them

Women were historically excluded from health research out of a misplaced fear that their hormones would “distort the results and make their findings less accurate in ‘real world applications,’” said Mikail, adding just eight per cent of Canada’s national health research funding goes toward women’s health and just 1.2 per cent of researchers are focused on women’s health issues. 

Significant stigma is also attached to women’s health issues, including contraception, fertility, miscarriage, maternal health, menstruation and menopause. “Silence contributes to reduced awareness. A reticence to ask questions or express concerns to one’s physician means that women themselves may delay or avoid seeking help for these dimensions of their health. One of the things we know from [health] research . . . is that early intervention to health concerns leads to better outcomes.”

Mikail recommended employers provide all employees with adequate coverage for mental-health treatment, noting the Canadian Psychological Association recommends an annual coverage maximum of between $3,500 and $4,000, enough to cover the cost of 15 to 20 sessions of psychological treatment.

Read: Dalhousie University providing menopause-inclusive workplace through support group, manager training

Integrated and holistic virtual health care is also important, he said, noting women are more likely to encounter barriers to care such as lack of transportation or childcare. A health-coaching service can also help, he added, since the initial intake call involves identifying areas of risk or vulnerability in a person’s life and provides curated information specific to their needs. There are also numerous solutions that can be offered through a group benefits plan, such as coverage for menstrual products, fertility drugs and hormone therapy.

Mikail also urged employers to support women at the perimenopausal and menopausal stage in their lives, given that the onset of menopause — typically between ages 45 and 55 — tends to happen as women reach the height of their careers and assume leadership roles. That support could include speaking more openly about menopause in the workplace through discussion groups and educational materials, benefits coverage and workplace policies that support menopausal women.

“It’s not only an equity issue and a significant opportunity to break the layer of the glass ceiling through better workplace supports. It’s also a profitability and a human resources issue.”

Read more coverage of the 2023 Mental Health Summit.