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It takes a village to improve mental health: How employers can contribute to employee well-being.

Supporting employee mental health and well-being is clearly the right thing to do – but it’s also a business imperative. That was a key message from the speakers at the “Prescription for a Healthier Canada” panel at TELUS Health’s Annual Conference 2022.    

“Managing people risk … should be a top business priority for any organization today,” said Janet Young, Director, People and Culture, Well-being and Health Services, at TELUS. “If we don’t manage people’s risk into the future to an even greater extent … our people will definitely suffer, which we obviously don’t want to have happen, and our business and bottom line is also going to suffer.”

Young explained that TELUS’s well-being strategy is structured around three elements: organizational infrastructure, organizational awareness and targeted programming.

Organizational infrastructure includes supportive policies, processes and resources, relevant training, and leadership support. It doesn’t require a lot of budget, but Young said it can be hard work to clear a path where no path exists. 

“Without a really good infrastructure or a foundation, your well-being strategy can’t take root and certainly can’t flourish or be sustained,” she emphasized.

TELUS has improved organizational awareness by offering initiatives and resources that support well-being, but also through repetition of key messages and concepts such as the well-being continuum which describes a person’s well-being as something that ebbs and flows throughout their lifetime, and is affected by physical, psychological, social, environmental and financial dimensions. Leaders have been asked to use this language consistently to reinforce awareness, and the organization has also trained “influencers” who not only keep the conversation going, they build well-being language into a variety of initiatives, not just initiatives led by the People & Culture team.

“We’re seeing it start to shift,” said Young. “We now have leaders building this language into their plans.”

To provide targeted programming, TELUS relies extensively on data, including benefits-related data, drug data, workers’ compensation and disability data, and turnover data, as well as insights from engagement surveys. Then it maps products to the well-being continuum to make sure there are supports for every person regardless of where they are on their journey. 

TELUS has also purposefully shifted the conversation to value-on-investment rather than return-on-investment. Young shared a straightforward question that has resonated with TELUS leaders:

“Rather than experiencing things like higher presenteeism and turnover rates, increased chronic health issues, more short-term disability issues, increased benefits costs, missing sales targets and business targets because people just aren’t feeling themselves … is the step to reply and respond to the outcome … or do we collectively want to go further upstream and try to avoid the outcome in the first place by being more preventative and more well-being-focused?”

A physician’s perspective.

Dr. Diane McIntosh, Psychiatrist and Chief Neuroscience Officer at TELUS, gave attendees a sense of the scale of the mental health challenge in Canada. 

“In any given year, one in five Canadians will personally experience symptoms of a mental illness, one in 20 will have a serious mental illness, and in a lifetime, one in 5 will have a substance use disorder, ” she said, adding that mental illness affects family members, friends and colleagues as well as the person directly affected.

She explained that primary care providers bear the weight of mental healthcare in this country, estimating that 80% to 85% of all psychiatric care is done by family doctors and nurse practitioners – and that more than half of initial psychiatric diagnoses aren’t accurate.

Dr. McIntosh shared that she’s working on ways to bring innovation and science together in support of our primary care providers, “to help them  diagnose and treat psychiatric illness and get people back to work, life, and love sooner.”

Echoing Young, Dr. McIntosh spoke about the substantial costs associated with the many ways mental illness can have an impact in the workplace, including affecting relationships with colleagues and presenteeism, which she said is much more common and costly to employers than absenteeism. She added, “Mental health disability claims are not just the fastest-growing type of claim, they’re now the leading type of disability claim, and this troubling trend is only going to worsen.”

However, she emphasized, “Employers play an absolutely pivotal role in their team member’s mental health and wellness,” adding that there are a variety of interventions that can support mental health and well-being at work and beyond. 

Employers can provide access to a range of programs and services to support employees across the mental health continuum. Yoga, professional coaching, dietician services, sleep hygiene programs and mindfulness/ meditation can all help employees get and stay healthy. Targeted services to address the stressors we all face, such as financial planning, parenting support, and psychological counselling, and when necessary, medication, are important options to add to the mix.

For employees who become ill, helping them connect to the right resources, quickly, is critical. Early intervention, including the immediate support of a general practitioner or psychologist, access to more specialized services, and a supportive disability management program are key to a better health outcome.

Public-private collaboration.

Michel Rodrigue, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, shared his perspective: “The pandemic has noticeably altered the mental health landscape in Canada. Amongst these changes are the gap in access to adequate and appropriate mental health and substance abuse care, which has grown dangerously wide.” 

He pointed out that the private sector is playing a growing role in helping to address that gap by providing mental health services to Canadians, and he shared key themes from a recent public-private insurers forum. Specifically, he said a consensus emerged around advancing collaboration in three priority areas: sharing data, building capacity and improving navigation.

“For mental health and substance use care to work well, it has to work for everyone,” he emphasized. “By fostering greater collaboration, we can show people … that timely, appropriate, quality mental health care isn’t only for the few but for the many.”

In response to a question from one of the attendees, Rodrigue mentioned that smaller organizations without extensive internal resources can access many free tools online, including those on the Mental Health Commission of Canada website, as well as training offered on topics such as reducing stigma and creating psychologically safe workplaces. 

“The next step is really considering that to create a psychologically safe workplace, you also need to consider work load, flexibility in scheduling [and] developing a common language that people are comfortable exchanging,” Rodrigue said. “You want a workplace where it is absolutely normal to say you’re not yourself today and be able to work with your colleagues and not put anyone at risk.”