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Why workplace well-being is a priority we can’t afford to ignore

Canadian workers are suffering from anxiety and depression at crisis-level rates. COVID-19 has only made it worse. But there are solutions, and the time is now to put them in place.

Raise your hand if you are tired of the coronavirus, and all the ways it has affected how we work, live and play. Masks. Soap. Physical distancing. The pandemic has pushed its way into our everyday lives, our businesses, and our economy. And it is exhausting.

It’s also why we need to talk more about it, because the toll COVID-19 is taking isn’t just physical or financial; it’s adding to the mental health crisis in Canada.

The reality is that even before coronavirus, we were collectively experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression due to the stressors of modern life. At work, employers were seeing and feeling the impact long before March 2020, when the country began to adopt stricter social guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. In any given week, 500,000 Canadians cited mental health symptoms or illnesses as the reason they were unable to work. The resulting impact to our economy was a staggering $51 billion annually, and an additional $6.3 billion in lost productivity.

Fast forward to today and the situation has undisputedly worsened. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, the pandemic is causing extreme national anxiety, and in a recent appeal to the government, “research suggests Canadians will still struggle with mental health challenges long after a vaccine is available.”

With many adults now spending most of their waking hours working and working at home—isolated from friends, peers, and juggling multiple competing priorities—the resulting anxiety, depression and burnout is causing widespread harm, and it requires immediate and compassionate attention. A healthy population and workforce will only be possible with the right mental health support in place, and Canadian businesses have a significant role to play.

Not only is it the humane and right thing to do, it’s also prudent to invest in workplace well-being. The World Health Organization states that “workplaces that promote mental health and well-being are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.”

A recent Deloitte study found that companies and employees are best served when employers invest in proactive programs that promote good mental health. For every $1 invested, the median yearly return is $1.62, and that figure rises to $2.18 for programs that have been in place for three years or more.

And yet only one-third of Canadian employers have invested in ways to reduce or eliminate major sources of stress, encourage exercising or meditating, offer mental health training, or put thoughtful return-to-work policies in place. That means two-thirds are playing catch-up in the midst of a pandemic, and are less equipped to mitigate the impact.

As Canadian business leaders, it’s incumbent upon us to support and learn from each other and get through this, together. As October is Canada’s Healthy Workplace Month, now is the perfect time to put a thoughtful strategy in place.

I’m proud to say that TELUS has been a leader in this space for years. We are part of the Canadian business community and in the spirit of collaboration, I am pleased to share best practices gleaned from our considerable efforts to address mental wellness in the workplace:

  • Fully embrace the benefits of flexible work arrangements. Enable people to work where and when it makes sense so they can better perform their pandemic juggling act.
  • Invest in mental health-related leadership training to build ability and confidence in support of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.
  • Create a mental health first aid network to provide crucial support during a mental health concern or crisis.
  • Provide seamless access to around-the-clock confidential counselling support. Explore virtual options to eliminate geographic barriers.
  • Implement a proactive absence support program to contact people who are struggling and offer resources to help before they need extended absences. Access to support sooner can have a positive impact on short term disability outcomes.
  • Evaluate the cost of increasing annual mental health-related benefits. Keep in mind that effective prevention and support can reduce medical and disability costs, while increasing productivity, and leading to better outcomes.
  • Engage experts to lead mental health-related conversations and help create a stigma-free culture. Last year TELUS hired a Chief Neuroscience Officer—a respected psychiatrist, university professor, and mental health advocate. We’re now partnering to facilitate sessions that enable our team members to ask questions and express concerns.
  • Empower people to give back to local causes that matter to them. Evidence shows that helping others is beneficial for mental health and well-being, and it creates a positive ripple effect.
  • Above all, acknowledge that well-being is multidimensional and dynamic. Strategies and support options must be, too. Leverage best-in-class frameworks like the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace for guidance and validation and use data insights and analytics to target mental health initiatives for greater impact.

For us, these strategies and support options are driving impact. At the end of 2019, we experienced a 5.2 percent reduction in new mental health short-term disability claims compared to the same period last year. And, in response to COVID-19, 93 percent of our team members believe that we are responding appropriately, and 89 percent believe that we are actively looking after their well being.

We’re living and working through a pandemic, and Canadian companies have a responsibility to support their team members to make it through to the other side. Even before COVID-19, the national mental health crisis was impacting human potential and costing our economy billions in absenteeism and lost productivity. We can’t afford to look away. The cost is far-reaching, and far too great. It’s within our power to affect meaningful change for our people, and all Canadians.