Employers urged to make it easier to discuss mental health at work

On any given week, thousands of Canadians won’t make it into work due to a mental-health problem or illness.

“[Mental health is] the No. 1 cause of group disability claims and represents one out of three active, open claims with insurance carriers,” said Travis Kelly, director of group disability and rehabilitation at Desjardins Insurance, during Benefits Canada’s Mental Health Summit in Toronto.

So if the costs are so high, why doesn’t mental health get more attention in the workplace? Stigma is one factor. According to a Conference Board of Canada study, 44 per cent of respondents said they’d had a mental-health issue but only 23 per cent spoke to their employer about it.

“Employees are suffering in silence,” said Kelly. “They don’t talk about it; they don’t seek help. And managers aren’t comfortable about talking about it with their employees, either,” he said.

Read: Integrated programs key to successful workplace mental-health strategies

So how do group insurers and employers open up the conversation and support employees? According to Kelly, prevention, intervention, time management and communication are particularly important.

When it comes to prevention, insurers can provide employers with tools that not only inform but that also educate and empower employees about the issues. They include interactive wellness platforms, especially ones that let employees talk to a health-care professional on the phone immediately. “Early intervention that gets at people when they’re first starting to see symptoms is key so that it doesn’t lead to a more dramatic effect on their work or home life,” said Kelly.

When it comes to intervention, it’s important to find the best approach, according to Kelly. “Once an employee is on disability, it’s crucial for the insurer to find the optimal intervention strategy.” Insurers, he said, do a cost-benefit analysis of all of the possible interventions to help control the duration of a claim by looking at the costs and odds of success, based on both medical and non-medical criteria.

Read: Linking financial, physical wellness to mental health

Employers need to maintain contact with employees while they’re on leave. Increasingly, insurers partner with employers to help build an engagement plan. Research shows that even a single phone call a week to check in on an employee who’s on short-term leave can help reduce the durations of disability claims, Kelly noted.

Time management is another issue. “We know from our experience that the longer employees are away on disability, the more likely it is they’re not going to go back,” said Kelly. For insurers, that means starting the claim as soon as the first document comes in, he noted.

Insurers will also build in systemic communication practices that require them to reach out to employees at certain points. “Communication shouldn’t be something we do when we need something; it should be direct and personalized and should involve all the right stakeholders,” said Kelly.

For employers, communication means seizing opportunities, especially before someone goes off on disability so they can start the conversation early on.

While Kelly noted it’s difficult to approach an employee about an issue, he said employers can create a workplace that makes it easier to discuss mental health. He suggested periodic email blasts that raise awareness about organizations that can help, providing coaching for managers and meetings with human resource teams.

“Communication around this has to be constant and ongoing,” he said. “It’s going to take time. Changing people’s attitudes is a multi-year commitment.”

Read more articles from the Mental Health Summit