The pandemic has taken a dramatic toll on the well-being of Canadians, but one of the most notable trends has been its impact on employees with pre-existing mental-health challenges, said Lanie Schachter-Snipper, registered psychotherapist and national director of outpatient services for EHN Canada, during Benefits Canada’s 2021 Chronic Disease at Work conference in late February.

Employees with pre-existing mental-health or addiction issues may have had symptoms come up episodically before the onset of the pandemic, but were able to function at work, were fully engaged in the tasks of daily living and could’ve even been accessing services for the first time. “Low-touch mental-health support would be totally sufficient for keeping these employees engaged at work,” Schacter-Snipper said.

“Now what we’re finding is that these same employees are now struggling with moderate and sometimes severe mental-health and addiction symptoms. These employees are being disrupted, their work is being disrupted as is their life outside of work. What previously may have been infrequent mental-health or addiction episodes are becoming frequent and are worsening in severity and intensity.”

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She said the result is higher rates of presenteeism, absenteeism, reduced productivity, higher numbers of sick days and more employees at risk of taking disability leaves to deal with their challenges.

While there are plenty of treatment options for Canadians dealing with mild mental-health challenges, there are far fewer supports for those dealing with moderate to severe issues. Faced with this landscape, Schacter-Snipper said it’s important for employers to understand what treatment options are out there to ensure their employees can access the right type of treatment.

According to a 2019 Deloitte study, employers that invest in workplace mental-health and addiction programs could see their investment double in three years. While the median yearly return on investment for such programs was $1.62 for every dollar invested, companies that had their programs in place for three or more years saw a yearly ROI of $2.18. “This really tells us how important these programs are and how the cost savings that come from committing to workplace mental-health and addiction programs.”

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Schacter-Snipper said employers should look out for several factors when trying to determine the best program for their employees. The most important is that the program be able to match services to symptom severity. While employees with mild symptoms may only need low-touch weekly or bi-weekly services or even self-guided treatment, those with moderate and severe symptomology — who may have tried other services and determined they needed more intensive and higher-touch support — would benefit from synchronous sessions with a registered clinician multiple times over the course of their treatment, in conjunction with an asynchronous element.

For employers considering engaging a telehealth provider, Schacter-Snipper recommended asking about platform features such as the use of breakout rooms, as well as security and privacy. “Your telehealth is never going to be 100 per cent secure, but it’s really important that you ask your provider how they manage security and privacy in online treatment.”

She also said any programming should be able to accommodate employees’ work schedules. Employers should ask providers if their curriculum includes stay-at-work and return-to-work solutions, as well as whether they have specialized return-to-work clinicians and groups that can be accessed by employees who are on leave. Employers should also look for a program that includes support for family and loved ones, as employees with these close connections involved in their care tend to have better outcomes.

Read: Successful return-to-work processes more essential during coronavirus

One key factor to employee success is a “comprehensive” approach to treatment and a program that can treat both mental health and addiction concurrently, Schacter-Snipper said. “Imagine you have an employee that has moderate symptoms and they require an intense level of support. If you ask them to go to four different providers for four different types of support — including family support and aftercare maintenance, for example — the likelihood of them adhering to the treatment plan that you’ve laid out decreases. What we want to do is bundle all of the supports into one comprehensive treatment program.”

Providers should be able to measure the outcomes of their mental-health and addiction treatment, and should have maintenance options so employees can receive ongoing support after the intensive part of their treatment comes to an end.

Read: Employers helping employees battle mental-health challenges