The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it anxiety, isolation and worsened mental health for Canadian workers, prompting companies to look seriously at how they support the well-being of their employees and in some cases, provide more benefits coverage.
Workers received boosts, sometimes significant ones, to their benefits plans and many now have several thousand dollars a year to put toward counselling, psychology and psychiatry services. The injection of funds into mental health benefits was a good start, but managers are now asking if an annual lump sum for mental health support is enough to ensure employees don’t wind up burned out, missing work or underperforming. Some business professionals argue the cap on financial support needs to be lifted if they’re going to be successful at creating a company culture where well-being in all forms — mental, physical and financial — gets a lift.
Removing Corus Entertainment Inc.’s benefits cap for mental health claims was one of the easiest and most impactful decisions Cheryl Fullerton says she’s ever made in her career. The media company’s executive vice president of People and Communications received emails from employees expressing how grateful they were for the change. People told her they no longer needed to choose between paying for a therapist and buying necessities for their kids.
“It’s hard enough to know you are in a bad place and it’s hard to ask for help and find it,” Fullerton said. “But then if you have to worry about how to pay for it, knowing that after a couple of sessions you’re on your own … the financial burden is real and that stops people from even starting therapy.”
Corus began providing unlimited funding for psychologists, social workers, counsellors, psychotherapists and online cognitive behavioural therapy through its benefits plan in April 2021. Fullerton said the move was sparked by the seemingly unending pandemic and the mental sting it inflicted on many employees. “At this point (in 2021), we were through the period of thinking it was all going to be over in six weeks and it was very, very hard, particularly for those working in media,” she said.
The financial burden is real and that stops people from even starting therapy
Cheryl Fullerton, Corus
After the cap was removed, the number of people who started using mental health benefits increased “materially,” Fullerton said. That solidified her and the team’s suspicion that the prospect of potentially running out of coverage was a barrier keeping workers from seeking services in the first place. Despite the limitless funding, Fullerton said around 80 per cent of Corus employees use less than $5,000 annually.
Corus is part of just four per cent of Canadian businesses with mental health coverage that exceeded $10,000 in 2022. The median cap is closer to $750, according to a survey by Benefits Canada. “The data on mental health supports what we’re seeing in the market: more employers are taking a multi-pronged, full-spectrum approach to mental health,” Alexandra Laflamme-Sanders, assistant vice president of Products and Solutions, Group Benefits at Sun Life Financial Inc. and a Benefits Canada advisory board member, said in the accompanying report.
Although the price tag for companies may seem steep, investing in benefits for mental health may be financially savvy long term. In 2011, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health estimated the economic burden of mental illness in Canada was some $51 billion, including $6.3 billion in lost productivity. Those figures haven’t been updated since 2011, but are likely higher now after factoring in the large number of people who say their mental health declined during the pandemic.
The economic factor was one that Fullerton, along with Corus’s chief executive and chief financial officer, considered carefully when redesigning the company’s benefits package.
“We asked, ‘If people are working well or unwell, what are the implications of that on them and the work that they do?’” Fullerton said. “If they’re not well, then they could go on leave of absence so you not only have the cost of absences, but also the stress on the team overall (and) the need for backfill and reintegration when they come back.”
Corus’s investment in mental health appears to be producing results. After removing the cap, mental health incidents as part of short-term disability claims fell to the lowest in four years, and long-term mental health disability claims, though remaining fairly flat during that time, are shorter in duration. Both sets of disability claims are also lower than Corus’s industry competitors, according to data provided by the company’s insurer.
But benefits are just one part of a larger integrated well-being system, Fullerton said. Corus also offers mental-health learning modules, a well-being newsletter nine times a year, events centred around mental, emotional, physical or financial well-being, and training for leaders on recognizing and responding to different types of mental or emotional concerns from staff. Those elements have always been in place, but were kicked up a notch during the pandemic, with leaders, including Fullerton, sharing their own personal experiences in weekly notes. “I wove the humanity of what we were going through into our corporate message every week,” she said.
It’s the integration of mental well-being into the wider company culture that’s also a key point of pride for Thinkific Labs Inc. — a software company with an office in Vancouver and some 250 employees located in cities including Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Halifax.
Daniella Liguori, Thinkific’s senior specialist of Talent, Employer Brand and Community, said a people-first culture has been the company’s goal since it was founded in 2012. “From a historic perspective we’ve always believed in supporting our team members outside of work,” she said. “The vision was set really early on.”
The company’s approach is based on author and executive coach Kim Scott’s idea of radical candour — caring about employees on a human level while also challenging them to have difficult conversations. On a day-to-day basis on the mental health front, that might mean something as simple as a worker changing their Slack status to a depleted battery (meaning “I’m feeling low”), posting in the company’s dedicated mental-health Slack channel, or approaching their manager with concerns.
“Definitely sometimes it can be hard to talk about mental health without it being perceived negatively,” Liguori said. “By practising that radical candour, I think that it opens a lot of conversations.”
The company also offers several financial benefits, including $3,000 to access mental health services, up from $2,000 in 2022, and a no-claims employee family assistance program offering counselling services.
But culture may be the key to addressing employee mental health. According to a survey by market research company Ipsos, three-quarters of working Canadians are still reluctant to admit to their bosses they have a mental illness for fear of judgment or retribution. A company culture of openness in discussing mental well-being may quell those fears. Still, there is a distinction between mental illness — defined as a diagnosed disorder that interferes with a person’s everyday life — and mental health, which exists on a spectrum of positive to negative and may not necessarily relate to a diagnosable condition like depression or anxiety.
Thinkific also promotes the importance of employees having the freedom to take time off without guilt to “fill their cups,” Liguori said. It’s typical for Thinkific staff to take an extra day off over a long weekend during the summer and workers are encouraged to take four weeks of vacation each year. “We believe in building a team that’s cared for, well-rested and worldly,” the company’s website reads. “These aren’t ‘perks.’ This is how you should always be supported at work.”
These aren’t ‘perks.’ This is how you should always be supported at work
Nova Scotia-based social media management company Dash Hudson Inc. takes a similar approach. Along with offering $2,000 in mental health benefits and an employee assistance program to access online or phone counselling, the company offers $450 quarterly for staff to spend on supporting their wellness.
“It’s a great benefit and most of our employees max it out,” Grace Gibson, Dash Hudson’s people operations manager, said.
Typical expenses might include a gym membership, but some employees use the wellness benefit more creatively, such as to buy Taylor Swift concert tickets or a water purifier. “We definitely do get interesting ones now and again,” she said. “We’re open to chatting to employees about how it supports them in their physical, mental or social wellness.”
The culture at Dash Hudson is one in which people can feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, Gibson said. To foster that culture, the company offers benefits that can be taken anonymously, and also trains leaders with resources from the non-profit Mental Health Commission of Canada, and offers daylong workshops for managers so they know how to address delicate situations, such as the proper response to someone in distress.
Gibson said Dash Hudson’s mental health supports are part of a long-term investment in the company’s team. To that end, it also offers unlimited sick days, for both mental and physical health issues. “Having this time so people can focus on their mental health (works) to … ensure they’re not coming back to work too early, because (that) really doesn’t benefit anyone,” she said.
Canada’s still tight labour market might offer another incentive for employers to offer greater mental health benefits. With roughly 70 per cent more job postings and six per cent fewer workers than before the pandemic, according to a 2022 report from the Royal Bank of Canada, companies are looking for novel ways to stand out. Insurance benefits and a healthy company culture are key things workers are looking for, additional RBC research suggests.
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And for some companies, increasing access to mental health support is simply the right thing to do.
“When discussing ways to further evolve our suite of supports for mental and emotional well-being, a bold move in accessing counselling just made sense, reinforcing our commitment to the mental health of our people in a meaningful, practical way,” Corus’s Fullerton said.
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