Two-thirds of employees making short- or long-term disability claims cited their workplace or work-related issues as a cause, but despite this only one in three Canadian employers has a mental-health strategy in place.

“Businesses may have several piecemeal strategies but not an overall strategy and the result is that their efforts either amount to nothing or they’re negatively perceived,” said Charmaine Alexander, senior advisor of disability management at Desjardins Insurance, during Benefits Canada’s 2020 Mental Health Summit on Nov. 13.

This was common in the coronavirus lockdowns in the spring of 2020, she noted. According to a University of Sherbrooke study, 50 per cent of Canadians had already reported a decline in their mental health in the spring and 26 per cent were showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Read: Canadians hesitant to access mental-health supports, despite declines during pandemic

However, a recent survey by Morneau Shepell Ltd. found 34 per cent of employees felt their employer’s mental-health supports were inconsistent or poor. And even when employers do offer mental-health supports, 60 per cent of employees don’t access them, either because they don’t know what’s available to them or the offering doesn’t include the professionals they want to access.

“If there’s one thing we need innovation to tackle, it’s helping that 60 per cent of people who are hesitant or in denial to get the help they need,” said Alexander. 

Technology can be a powerful tool to address this issue, she added, noting chatbots, for example, can reach employees who aren’t yet ready to take official steps to contact a professional about their mental-health concerns. Powered by artificial intelligence, these bots ask questions and adapt their responses and advice, provide resources and, if necessary, recommend that users connect with mental-health professionals.

“Does this really help employees who use it? Absolutely. In fact, people are more likely to open up to the machine than they are sometimes to real people. And because the experience is more anonymous and less confrontational it’s easier for them to reach out and consider using something such as an [employee assistance program].” 

Read: What you don’t know about your employee assistance program

However, while there’s plenty of potential in technology, the booming market for mental-health apps has caused developers to cut corners, launching products that aren’t actually proven to work or aren’t based on science, said Alexander. As well, while many solutions are focused on diagnosis and treatment, there’s not much on offer that addresses prevention.

Employers can help with the prevention piece by fostering psychologically safe and inclusive workspaces, she said. “We need to ask ourselves: How can we change the way we interact with our employees so that these interactions prevent mental illness? This new normal has forced use to question our values and our culture and how we can adapt to the future.”

She suggested employers consider creating social contracts with their employees that address five major themes: an overall culture of health and wellness that prioritizes mental, physical and financial health; psychological safety and a safe workplace; inclusion and diversity; management practices that adapt to employees’ new needs as they work from home; and training and education.

Read: Webinar: Overall health key to employee well-being during, after pandemic

“This crisis has seriously disrupted the way we work; it’s disrupted our habits, our beliefs, our interpersonal relationships and it’s disrupted the already fragile mental health of our employees.

“I think organizations that are going to get through this and into the new future will be ones that make overall well-being a central tenet of how they do business, the ones that make co-operation, kindness and empathy the most important parts of the employee experience, the ones that demonstrate that people are their most valuable resource.”

Read more coverage of the 2020 Mental Health Summit.