In the face of soaring mental health-related disability leaves and broader challenges with access to mental-health care, integrated disability management programs that include early intervention, accommodations and return-to-work supports can help shorten leave durations. 

“Having an effective disability management program not only prevents and mitigates the impact of disability leaves on an organization, but it also demonstrates that employers value the health and safety of their employees,” said Olivier Pagé, director of group disability management operations for Medavie Blue Cross, during Benefits Canada’s 2023 Mental Health Summit.

A report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada found mental health was the No. 1 driver of disability claims across the country in 2022, accounting for 30 per cent of all short- and long-term claims and 70 per cent of the total cost of disability claims.

Read: How are pandemic reverberations affecting disability management programs, workplace accommodations?

According to Medavie’s 2022 claims report, mental-health disability claims increased by 36 per cent between 2019 and 2021. Among plan members aged 20 to 59, mental health was the No. 1 reason for STD and LTD claims and, among plan members aged 60 to 69, it was the No. 2 reason for LTD claims and the No. 3 reason for STD claims.

As a result, a growing number of Canadian workplaces are setting up accommodation and return-to-work programs to ensure employees remain at work or return to their job quickly and successfully, said Pagé, adding early intervention can prevent a mild or moderate mental-health challenge from progressing to a more severe condition.

He noted reduced copays and deductibles and mental health first-aid training for managers can support early intervention efforts. “This is especially important because access to treatment is often delayed and difficult for claimants.”

While employees who have mild mental-health challenges can turn to wellness and self-care resources to manage stress, workers who require more support can benefit from early and efficient access to care, such as through a virtual health-care platform and a robust provider network.

Read: More than a third of disability claims in 2022 due to mental-health reasons: survey

For employees facing a disability leave due to severe mental-health issues, early intervention and active case management is key, said Pagé. “We have seen in research that the very first thing that needs to happen from a carrier or disability management perspective is we need to demonstrate we care, we need to show people we have an intention to help them. If you start to talk about returning to work from the get-go before someone feels their problem is being addressed, they will dig their heels in.”

Once employees are receiving care for their disability, the insurer can start to work with the employer and employee on accommodations and a return-to-work plan. He also advised plan sponsors to touch base with employees who are on leave — in a way those employees feel comfortable with — to ensure they feel supported and cared for while they’re off work.

Read more coverage of the 2023 Mental Health Summit.