Organizations must stop 'second pandemic' of mental health

Expert outlines how employers can redesign group benefit plans to better support their workforces

Organizations must stop 'second pandemic' of mental health

Insurance News

By Alicja Grzadkowska

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on Canadian organizations, as well as the mental health of their employees. During Navacord’s 2021 National Construction Conference – CHALLENGE + CHANGE, John Cochrane, partner and senior consultant at JDIMI Consulting, a Navacord broker partner, led a session titled, “Mental Health and Disability Trends in the Construction Industry,” where he addressed mental health trends in Canada, the impacts of a looming mental health crisis on businesses and employees, and the actions required to advocate for and support mental health and well-being in the workplace.

Mental health was a problem long before COVID-19 hit. In 2019, 59% of Canadians reported having a mental health issue, according to a Sun Life survey, and 61% of those Canadians said that they were not using their workplace benefits to address those issues. That means, said Cochrane, that “almost a third of our population has been struggling with mental health and has had limited resources available to them through their employee benefit plans, and the employers that offer resources struggle to optimize utilization due to employee privacy concerns, stigma, cost, and availability.”

The pandemic has since accelerated this mental health and emotional distress crisis. In a different Sun Life survey, 60% of the respondents reported that they are currently experiencing some form of mental health issues, and 54% of those with mental health issues said that they have not received medical aid. “This is the hidden iceberg that we are not dealing with today as organizations,” said Cochrane. “What we say in the industry is that COVID is the first pandemic, and the second pandemic is going to be mental health.”

Canadians have a lot on their plates today, on top of the fears that their loved ones will get sick and dealing with social isolation. Financial stress in particular can cause more serious health issues, such as high blood pressure, heart problems, depression, and anxiety, which employees then bring with them into the workplace. As a result, “You’re going to see more absences due to sick leave, increased turnover, lower morale and engagement, poor working relationships, and more importantly, a lack of focus and poor decision-making while they’re at work,” explained Cochrane, adding that the fallout will likely be seen in disability claims and rates, which will probably increase substantially over the next four to five years.

Already, the cost of disability was growing by 5-6% a year before COVID-19. Now, “Post-COVID, it’s going to be significantly more,” said Cochrane. “There is a perfect storm for disability rates to increase [due to] a rise in mental health claims, which are the second most complicated claims to manage, and they tend to be longer in duration than most physical claims. [There’s also the fact that] during these past 12 months, the ability for insurers to find rehabilitation specialists for the individuals that are on disability and to bring people back on a graduated return-to-work basis hasn’t happened, and we anticipate a prolonged long-term interest rate environment, which has a direct correlation to disability rates.”

Organizations could potentially see 10-20% increases in disability costs over the next two years, and while they’ve gotten good at managing physical disability costs, many are just “breaking the surface on mental health conditions,” noted Cochrane, who cautioned, “If we do not do anything with respect to proactive mental health in our workplaces, we are going to suffer the consequences of a fragmented and inefficient workforce.”

Larger organizations have the upper hand when addressing mental health in their workplaces. These employers may have awareness initiatives in place today, alongside the tools and resources necessary for employees who are suffering to reach out and feel comfortable doing so. On the other hand, smaller organizations typically don’t have the tools in their employee benefit programs to encourage employees to come forward, without the fear of worrying that their employers are going to find out that they have a mental health problem.

Needless to say, for all organizations to effectively address the growing wave of mental health issues among their employees, they need to have a holistic three-pronged approach targeting financial, physical, and mental well-being. On the financial side, job security, paid time-off, retirement planning and contributions, and base salary are all top-of-mind for employees when considering how happy they are at work. On the physical side, employers are responsible for their employees’ workplace safety by following WSIB guidance, and providing short and long-term disability leave in the event somebody is sick or injured.

Many companies historically thought about these two factors, but most fall short on the mental health side. “Less than 10% of all benefit plans focus on mental health,” said Cochrane. “We need to change that entire strategy for organizations.”

Cochrane recommends that organizations evaluate their employee benefit plans, which historically have been designed to be reactive, rather than proactive, and have leaned towards physical health.

“You need to change the spectrum, and have 30% [of the plan] be proactive and 30% focused on mental health, and if you don’t have those resources, you’re not going to get the return on investment for such a large expense,” he continued.

To design their plans, employers should be utilizing trusted advisors to provide guidance, while communicating with employees about how their benefit plans are changing. Moreover, they should be evaluating their workplace culture, which can have a significant impact on employee well-being.

“In order to change culture, you need executive leadership buy-in, and it needs to transcend all the way through the organization in order for you to materially affect culture,” said Cochrane, adding, “You [also] need to establish corporate objectives around mental health.”

Employers should likewise think about what they’re offering in their extending healthcare plans. Questions they need to consider include:

  • Who’s managing workers’ compensation claims or non-occupational STD claims and are they identifying any mental health concerns to find those triggers early on?
  • What can you cover in the extended plan and what are your options, in terms of additional resources to offer employees?
  • For short-term disability and long-term adjudication, who are your partners? Are you partnering with an administrator or a medical professional?

Companies should utilize existing programs and lean on their current vendors for support. Those vendors, such as insurance companies, have expertise in the group benefits space and can provide valuable support for organizations on the mental health front.

“I challenge organizations to prioritize mental health initiatives as I am convinced that you will be rewarded and pleased with the results. Your current vendors likely have the capability and resources you need so make sure that you are getting and maximizing everything you can out of them for support,” said Cochrane, adding that this process “needs to be collaborative in order for it to be effective.”

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