Mass COVID-19 vaccination programs are beginning — yet for the many Canadians struggling with mental health issues, the vaccine may be just the first step on a long road to recovery.

In fact, insurance carriers anticipate an upswing in claims for depression, anxiety and adjustment disorder even as some semblance of normalcy returns, as plan members finally seek treatment that they might have put off. This may be especially true for frontline and essential workers, and for parents with dependent children.

Plan sponsors who consistently communicate their mental health supports and who proactively support employees at risk can decrease the impact of the mental health fallout of COVID-19 in their own health benefits plan.

From March 2020 until the end of last year, the percentage of short-term disability (STD) claims due to a mental health issues remained the same compared to 2019, according to claims data from Canada Life. While on the surface this may appear to be good news, it depends on other factors. For example, if uptake of your employee family assistance program (EFAP) increased while STD claims for mental health remain stable, that could indeed be good news. Or perhaps you’ve increased coverage for psychological services (e.g., internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy) and you’ve seen an increase in claim activity; that, too, could be a good sign in terms of future mental health claims.

However, without those factors, little or no growth in STD claims may be described as a false calm before the storm. In survey after survey over the past year, Canadians are telling us they are more troubled, anxious, lonely, depressed:

  • Forty per cent said their mental health has deteriorated since the onset of the pandemic; 27% of those with pre-existing mental health issues reported an increase in suicidal thoughts and feelings during the second wave, according to research by the CANADIAN MENTAL HEALTH ASSOCIATION (CMHA).
  • 84% report their mental health concerns have worsened and those with the highest levels of concern were more likely to cope using risky behaviours such as the consumption of food, alcohol and controlled substances, reports THE CONFERENCE BOARD OF CANADA and the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
  • Approximately one in five Canadians increased their use of alcohol and controlled substances since the start of the pandemic, according to CMHA, and 26% have engaged in binge drinking, reports the CENTRE FOR ADDICTION AND MENTAL HEALTH (CAMH).
  • Twenty-four percent of Canadians experienced moderate or severe anxiety in December 2020, increasing to 29% among those with children, 30% among those who switched to working at home and 34% among frontline and essential workers, reports CAMH.

For people experiencing moderate or severe anxiety or depression, it’s critical they seek and get support quickly, to prevent potentially debilitating illness. Now more than ever, your actions as an employer can make a difference. Here is a checklist to consider:

Workplace

Support leaders

  • Provide leadership coaching so leaders can recognize and know how to respond when an employee, including a home-based employee, is struggling.

Support employees

  • Positively and consistently communicate available resources —and that it’s okay to get help.
  • If you don’t have an EFAP, consider implementing one; work with your advisor to select the provider or talk to your benefits provider to see if that’s a service they offer.
  • Repeatedly inform on-site or returning employees of all workplace health and safety precautions. When employees know how the workplace is protecting them, they’re better able to cope.
  • Check in regularly with employees working from home.
  • Encourage employees to take their breaks and vacation time.

This article is brought to you by CANADA LIFE, sponsor of The Benefits Alliance Group Take 5 for Health Benefits newsletter and website.