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TELUS Health Conference: Understanding the mental health of tomorrow’s leaders

After three years of a global pandemic, the workplace has undergone a collective reset of mental health. And, heightened rates of anxiety and depression mean that employees’ mental health is suffering. If employers fail to address their mental health needs, as well as their financial health, they’ll be left with future leaders who will fail to inspire their workforces, and will not perform in their roles, negatively affecting their organizations.

Those were the findings shared at TELUS Health’s annual conference on April 26, 2023. 

Paula Allen, Global Leader, Research and Total Wellbeing with TELUS Health, said that over the past three years, TELUS Health’s Mental Health Index has found that mental health declined dramatically.

“We’re seeing this anger, this cynicism,” she told attendees. “Isolation is still with us.” Younger individuals are bearing the brunt of it much more. Many employees believe they are coping with these new emotions, but they are merely normalizing feelings of isolation that shouldn’t be normalized, she said. The future outcome, if these issues aren’t addressed, will be leaders who can’t lead effectively, she warned. “You are not going to inspire anyone if you are emotionally distracted.”

It’s why employers need to focus even more of their efforts on providing comprehensive mental health supports in the workplace, offering them in a variety of formats to maximize their uptake. “This is Total Mental Health," said Allen. Plus, plan sponsors, with the help of advisors, need to address their employees’ financial health at the same time, as mental health and financial well-being are intertwined.

These programs need to be customized and tailored to maximize their impact, something benefits advisors need to communicate to their clients. And “They need to be part of a larger company-wide commitment to mental health,” said Allen.

“What employers do makes a big difference,” she said. “This is what we need to shout from the rooftops.”

Mental Health Index reveals concerning trends

Allen said that past discussions in the industry have centred on reducing short-term and long-term disability leaves as well as getting employees back to work. But the “conversation is so much bigger now,” she said.

She said a review of the Mental Health Index, refined and validated over three years from 2017-2019, has become an invaluable tool in the information it highlights about the state of mental health in Canadian workplaces. The conclusions it draws about mental health are concerning.

She says it found that in April 2023, 34 per cent of the working population was at high risk of a mental health issue—up from 12 per cent in 2019. Among the under 40-year-olds, they reported feeling “unwell” 28 per cent of the time. They also tended to report more relationship issues with co-workers, friends and family members. “Younger workers are also likely to feel a lack of connection and acceptance,” said Allen.

Worse, there is still a lot of stigma around sharing mental health concerns in the workplace. Allen said that many younger workers believe their career would be limited if they disclosed a mental health condition. This was reported by 54 per cent of those 20-29, 50 per cent of those 30-39, 44 per cent of those 40-49, 40 per cent of those aged 50-59 and 38 per cent of those 60 and over. The key understanding here is that this reflects the stigma they perceive in the workplace, not whether they hold stigmatizing views themselves.

As a result, Allen said many younger employees do not seek help from their employers and do not utilize the supports that have been put in place.

Undertreated and having challenges with productivity, employees are more likely to exhibit  presenteeism, increased absenteeism, and be more likely to go on short- and  long-term disability. “This will be a larger issue for employers going forward,” said Allen.

Personal finances also linked to mental health

The pandemic also shone a light on personal savings and mental stress, given the high rates of unemployment in a variety of sectors. The Index showed that 45 per cent of those employees surveyed have felt overwhelmed by debt and 41 per cent are concerned or unsure about their financial future. As well, 31 per cent reported having to dig into their savings to make ends meet.

“Your financial wellbeing is a driver of your mental health,” said Allen. “Post-pandemic declines in financial well-being is one of the drivers of the continuous strain we are experiencing.”

She said helping  employees to save more money through automatic savings programs is one way that can help improve their sense of a safetynet, which is helpful to mental well-being.. “When you have emergency savings, you have that feeling you can cope,” said Allen. “It gives you a sense of resilience.”

Change is possible

Despite the alarming findings in the Mental Health Index, Allen feels that it’s not too late to improve the situation by supporting employees’ mental health needs. “All of it can be addressed,” she said.

She points to the organizations who made mental health a priority during the pandemic – and whose employees benefited dramatically. Those who had policies in place supporting mental health, offered benefits programs that proactively addressed mental health issues and fostered a culture of awareness and positivity from the top down saw mentally healthier workplaces.

“They made sure this quality of life and quality of care were a focus—and it paid off,” she said.

Employees also recognize the value. The Mental Health Index found that 31 per cent of employees under 40 and 36 per cent of those over 40 said that mental health benefits and services were the most reason they stayed with their current employer.

As a result, it’s incumbent on advisors, along with employers, to do their homework to determine what approaches are best for a given organization. TELUS Health is also committed to crafting a workplace strategy that can assess what mental health supports are working—and which aren’t – as well as benchmarking organizations against their peers. The Index can grade firms on their approach to mental health  and identify opportunities. “Organizations can use the Index to see where they stand,” she said.

“Look at the services you’re offering, understand your population and make sure your offerings are robust,” said Allen. She said that means providing services that meet every need, from a virtual consult to in-person counselling.

The outcome can be workplaces that promote dialogue around mental health, support their staff, train their managers, build resilience, boost productivity and are attractive from a retention standpoint. This will in turn foster a new generation of leaders who champion mental health and model the traits of inclusivity, flexibility and motivation.

“We want to ensure that we are making things as easy as possible to get support,” said Allen.

View the full presentation: