Plan members using EAP, virtual care to support mental health during pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has significantly increased plan members’ willingness to seek help for their mental-health concerns and to access video or telephone counselling, said Julie Gaudry, senior director of group insurance for RBC Insurance, during Benefits Canada’s 2020 Mental Health Summit on Nov. 12.

An RBC Insurance survey of plan members found two-thirds (67 per cent) were very or somewhat likely to consult with a mental-health practitioner for the challenges they’re facing, up from 50 per cent in 2019. As well, 60 per cent of plan members said they’d be open to speaking with a professional over video or the telephone, well up from just 45 per cent last year.

Presenting insights from RBC Insurance’s survey and claims data, Gaudry noted that increased openness to virtual service delivery could be partly due to necessity. “The amount of services that can be delivered virtually these days is significantly higher than it was even in 2019, just by virtue of having to find new ways to deliver products and services.”

Read: Most Canadians say employer should offer virtual health care: survey

Indeed, the pandemic has taken a toll on plan members’ mental well-being, with 62 per cent rating their mental health as good or excellent, down four per cent from 2019. Just 58 per cent of women reported excellent or good mental health in comparison to 67 per cent of men. Mental-health also significantly differed based on age, with only half (51 per cent) of younger Canadians reporting good or excellent mental health in comparison to 72 per cent of Canadians aged 55 and older.

RBC Insurance also asked respondents which group benefits they used to support their mental health. About a third of respondents said they used employee assistance programs (31 per cent) and coverage for in-person counselling (30 per cent), while 22 per cent of respondents said they used their health-care spending account to pay for wellness services.

One-fifth (20 per cent) of respondents said they were using virtual or telephone therapy and 20 per cent said they were accessing tools to help navigate mental-health services. Usage of navigator tools was significantly higher among respondents who rated their mental health as poor (35 per cent) compared to those who rated their mental health as good (17 per cent).

Read: How can employers manage work-from-home burnout?

Plan members were increasingly relying on mental-health supports even before the pandemic arrived. In January 2020, claims for consulting with a psychologist were up 33 per cent over January 2019 and claims for social workers were up 21 per cent. In February 2020, the trend continued, with claims for both practitioners up 38 per cent and 59 per cent, respectively, over the previous year. Gaudry said the insurer wasn’t sure what was driving the trend.

In contrast, claims for all paramedical practitioners dropped 27.3 per cent from March to August 2020 in comparison to the same time last year, but mental-health claims were significantly less impacted (-10 per cent) than all other paramedical practitioners (-29 per cent).

“Either people found a way to still see those counsellors as required or perhaps the demand was up and that offset the decline we’ve seen as a result of the closure measures,” she said. “Or perhaps it speaks to the success of this type of care in terms of pivoting into virtual delivery.”

Claims for mental-health medications have increased as well, with particularly notable year-over-year increases in March (10 per cent), May (18 per cent), June (29 per cent) and July (16 per cent) in comparison to the same months in 2019. Drugs for other medical conditions, meanwhile, mostly declined or stayed flat in comparison to 2019 data.

Read: Coronavirus pandemic drives 20% increase in new claims for mental-health drugs

However, disability claims have bucked the expected trend, with short- and long-term disability claims at lower rates than 2019, other than a small spike in STD claims in March, which Gaudry speculated could be attributed to the early days of the pandemic.

“We thought we would be into a tsunami of disability claims into 2020 and beyond — and probably for mental health as well, but so far . . . we’re not seeing that.” 

Read more coverage of the 2020 Mental Health Summit.