Arming Canada's workers against their other invisible enemy

by Leo Almazora22 Jul 2020

Across the world, the novel coronavirus has firmly established itself as an invisible threat that people must protect themselves against. But at least in the Canadian context, the pandemic is providing the perfect conditions for another invisible scourge to spread even further.

“If we look at the most recent data from the Mental Health Commission of Canada [MHCC] that emerged before COVID-19 hit, it indicates that 21.4% of the working population will personally experience a mental-health problem or illness that can affect their productivity,” said Julie Gaudry, senior director, Group Insurance at RBC Insurance.

A worsening trend
Insurance claims data provides some support for that. According to Gaudry, mental-health problems and illnesses stand out as the leading cause of long-term disability claims, accounting for more than 30% of such cases filed at RBC Insurance. And across the wider industry, a recent report from TELUS Health says that mental-health claims were among the major factors contributing to a 7.6% rise in eligible monthly costs among private drug plans in 2019.

More recent data suggest that challenges from the coronavirus are pouring gasoline on the fire. Gaudry referred to findings from Morneau Shepell, which indicate that from March 20 to June 5, just under 30% of workers who have availed of help through their company’s employee assistance program [EAP] cited COVID-19-related personal stress as the main reason for their call. Express Scripts Canada has reported that the number claims for antidepressants over the past few months from January to June was 11% higher than during the same period last year, and 52% of participants in a recent Statistics Canada survey said their mental health had gotten either somewhat worse or much worse since physical distancing measures were put in place.

“With COVID-19, there’s been a massive disruption to both individuals and businesses as a whole,” Gaudry said. “Understandably, we’re all feeling the effects, whether it’s through social distancing and isolation, or the fear that you or a loved one may get sick, or the financial stress coming from the pandemic’s economic impact. That means keeping workers mentally healthy should be a primary concern for employers, on top of trying to lead new remote teams, maintaining proper safety protocols within physical locations, and other emerging challenges.”

The novel coronavirus’s toll on mental well-being is not likely to disappear as soon as the crisis is over, either. The economic wounds from the pandemic will leave scars on the finances of countless households; in the same way, Canadians should expect at least some psychological fallout after months or years living under a cloud of COVID-19 fear.

Solutions across the mental-health spectrum
“As an insurer, we of course want to see our plan members stay healthy and at work,” Gaudry said. “As their group benefits provider, we need to be there for plan sponsors as they support their employees’ mental health.”

Even before the pandemic hit, RBC Insurance has been offering its plan members a range of care options spanning the mental-health continuum. Through a digital wellness program, workers can access personalized content and resources based on their areas of interest and health risks. They may also call their employer’s EAP to get short-term support through counseling, online resources, or a referral to community resources.

In terms of longer-term solutions, RBC group plan members have the option to access longer-term counselling either online, over the phone, or face to face; another program, AbilitiCBT, provides therapist-assisted online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help plan members overcome anxiety, depression, and other issues that may weigh on their mental well-being. Both of those offerings were offered as eligible expenses under traditional group benefits plans.

“For plan members who do end up on disability due to depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns, we have the Onward by Best Doctors program,” Gaudry said. “It connects disability claimants with psychiatrists who can assess their condition and give recommendations around treatment to the worker’s attending physician. They also virtually connect with psychologists for a series of CBT sessions.”

Responding to the crisis
Recognizing the increased risk to mental health posed by the pandemic, along with the fact that more and more plan members are working at home, RBC Insurance has decided to offer the AbilitiCBT program at no cost to members in provinces where government-funded programs aren’t available.

“We’ll be offering that for free to our members for a certain amount of time,” Gaudry said. “The program now also includes a module specific to COVID-19 related anxiety, which includes very practical solutions to help plan members cope with the challenges they’re facing and ideally support them so they can remain healthy and at work.”

For companies, the new remote-work reality has made employee engagement even more challenging: according to Morneau Shepell, 34% of employees it surveyed felt that their employer had been either inconsistently or poorly supporting their mental health through this time.

Another poll conducted by RBC Insurance last year found that 94% of working Canadians would prefer to work for an employer that cares for their overall health and well-being. With that in mind, the insurer is also opening a wealth of resources for managers with webinar-based training on supporting workers’ mental health through the pandemic, leading remotely through COVID-19, or thriving in the new normal.

“Managers interact regularly with their employees; maybe they’re the ones struggling employees turn to, or they may just see signs when someone they manage is having a hard time,” Gaudry said. “So they play a vital role in creating an environment where employees feel comfortable asking for help when they need it.

“At this time, we just recognized the challenges are just that much more heightened for both employees and their employers,” she said. “As their group benefits provider, we realize the need to give additional resources to support them through this challenge, and that's what we're aiming to do.”