When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across North America in early 2020, most of us thought that we were making a lot of changes to our daily lives for a temporary situation. Some were quite pleased to finally have the opportunity to work remotely, while others had to learn how to balance the needs of young children at home with competing job demands. The pandemic tested everyone’s ability to change and adapt quickly.
Keeping morale was feasible at the beginning because the changes were widely assumed to be temporary, and we all had to do our share to fight this new reality. But morale quickly began to drop as the pandemic continued to impact our way of life in a not-so-temporary way. The disruption created stress, insecurity, and fear within the first couple of months of the pandemic and has resulted in 50% of Canadians reporting increasing mental health symptoms. Now that a year has passed and the burden of these changes has accumulated, many employers, experts, and providers are reporting changes to mental health claims.
While we have been talking about the COVID-19 impact on mental health for many months and have seen survey results and predictions, ReedGroup Canada has begun experiencing an increase in mental health claims. The Canadian Mental Health Association has predicted that Canadians will continue to struggle with their mental health as a result of COVID-19, long after the vaccine has become available. Employees are being diagnosed with adjustment disorders because they are simply burned out, and others who had pre-existing mental health issues are experiencing escalating symptoms and an increase in their vulnerability. To cap it off, access to rehabilitation services have been drastically minimized due to closures, lockdowns, and reduced capacities in Canada.
Organizations are continuing their efforts to support their employees by offering flexible work schedules, access to Employee Assistance Programs, and telemedicine. While these tactics may help, they cannot prevent all absences, especially in a time where stress is omnipresent in our day-to-day lives. When employees are absent from work, Human Resources and external claims management providers are facing a new reality when it comes to promoting a safe and timely return to work for non-essential employees working remotely, especially in situations where the employee is suffering from isolation or is taking care of young children.
Gradual/modified return to work plans are put in place to support reintegration into the workplace for employees who have been absent due to a mental health disorder. The goal of these plans is to provide the employee with the opportunity to utilize the worksite as part of their recovery treatment plan. The plan acts as a bridge, enabling the employee to work towards a return to their regular job and the normal activities of their life. For many employees, the “worksite” is now a home office, therefore the benefits of these plans and the support provided is limited. This can lead to extended claim duration and impact the employee’s motivation to return to work.
We are also noticing an increase in cases where the employee is exposed to significant personal stressors related to family concerns, causing them to request an unpaid leave of absence, or even resign instead of returning to work. Many solutions that are normally presented to employees to resolve personal stressors are no longer available, and the perception of having to manage increased workloads on top of everything can seem unbearable to those struggling with their mental health. After all, how can we expect people to be a full-time parent or caregiver, and also deliver the same performance at work for many weeks and months in a row?
What should employers do to better support employees who are absence due to a mental health condition?
- Promote connectivity and communication in order to ensure that employees feel that they remain involved.
- Keep contact with employees while they are absent – it is crucial to make them feel supported.
- Increase communication and virtual involvement throughout the return-to-work process to improve employee engagement and sense of belonging.
- Ensure your disability provider has access to all the services your organization offers to support mental health (EAP, Digital CBT, Benefits details….).
- Evaluate partnerships with specialized vendors for extended rehab services after return-to-work, to help prevent relapses.
- Talk to your provider about the psychological assistance services they can offer to better support these claims and review the process to promote these services. It is important to ensure they have virtual and digital solutions.
- Pre-authorize a budget for specialized psychological assistance services to promote recovery.
- Provide training sessions to your managers on how to successfully manage return to work (preparation, reintegration, and follow-up.)
While we are all facing this pandemic together, we all have different realities, and to reduce the negative impacts we must respect our differences and show empathy. In these unknown and unprecedent times, every little gesture counts. It is essential that employers act proactively when it comes to supporting the mental health of their employees.
 CAMH: Mental Health in Canada: COVID-19 and Beyond
 Canadian Mental Health Association
Information provided on this blog is intended for general educational use. It is not intended to provide legal advice. ReedGroup does not provide legal services. Consult an attorney for legal advice on this or any other topic.