A look at ROI benefits of employee mental-health programs

Workplace mental-health programs can demonstrate a huge return on investment for an organization’s bottom line, as well as reducing absenteeism and presenteeism, said Nir Yahav, mental-health specialist on the national disability best practices team at Manulife, during a session at Benefits Canada’s 2019 Vancouver Mental Health Summit on Dec. 12.

There are huge costs associated with presenteeism, since the related costs due to depression are five to 10 times higher than from absenteeism, he noted. With a labour shortage of about two million workers expected in Canada by 2031, it’s very important to keep employees engaged and productive at work. “When companies develop programs and invest in their employees, everyone wins.”

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Statistically, up to half a million Canadian employees require time off work for a mental-health condition each week, said Yahav, with mental health accounting for 30 per cent of all benefits claims and 70 per cent of total costs. However, he added these numbers relate to mental health as the primary condition; the statistics are much higher when it’s the secondary.

Fifty per cent of employees with severe depression don’t seek help at all, and people with depression work at only 62 per cent of their capacity, said Yahav. In fact, many employees don’t feel safe disclosing a mental-health concern to their employers due to feelings they might be judged or perceived as weak or not fit for the job. And stigma plays a big role as well. “Although we’ve made significant strides toward reducing this as a society, there’s still quite a bit out there. We have a long way to go before eliminating stigma altogether.”

There are a variety of factors why employees will require time off work to address a mental-health issue, but employers can take steps toward supporting these individuals, both inside and outside of the workplace, he said. “They can identify the psychological hazards which may help prevent mental injury altogether and provide a supportive and psychologically safe workplace for employees.”

Read: Proactively identifying people at risk next stage in mental-health awareness

Other ways to address mental-health prevention include company awareness campaigns and speaking openly about mental illness in an attempt to normalize it, noted Yahav. “There’s also a case to be made for providing leaders with more awareness, more training, more tools and to know what to ask when they identify an issue,” he said, highlighting an Australian study that showed a 10-to-one return on investment for mental-health training for leaders.

Sufficient psychotherapy is a cost-effective, preventative measure, he added, and access can help prevent repeat absences and shorten long-term leaves.

As well, it’s critical to plan and support disability management, said Yahav, noting an important component in managing disability is ensuring there’s appropriate and ongoing communication between a leader and employee during an absence. When someone’s off work, there’s a huge element of shame and guilt, he added, and this is where self-stigma kicks in. In order to tackle this, employers can call to check in from a human element, he suggested, instead of asking when that employee is coming back to work.

Read: Awareness, education key parts of a mental-health action plan

“This helps to keep [the employee on leave] engaged and feel like they’re still part of the workplace even though they’re not there physically. That’s really important and not only a way of reducing stigma, but also has the potential of reducing the duration of the disability all together.”

Plan sponsors should also consider accommodations ahead of a return to work to ensure plan members are successful upon reintegration, said Yahav. An accommodation is a way of changing how things are done, such as reducing distractions, moderating the intensity of social interactions, allowing for frequent breaks, adjusting the workload, pacing task duration and allowing time off for appointments.

“These accommodations don’t need to be complex and expensive. At the end of the day, we need to understand the employee’s limitations, what they’re struggling with and what needs to be addressed to set this person up for success. It is a win-win because when the person is set up for success, they’re present, working and engaged. When they don’t feel like they’re set up for success, there’s a better likelihood of a setback.”

Read more from the 2019 Vancouver Mental Health Summit.