Minds Matter: Why Employers Are Looking For Ways to Better Care For Their Staff’s Mental Health

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In 2016, Starbucks Canada increased its mental-health benefits to $5,000 per year for all eligible employees who work a minimum of 20 hours per week and their dependents — representing one of the highest mental-health benefits offered by any company in Canada in any industry.

The move came at a time when, according to a study by Toronto-based Morneau Shepell, one-in-three working Canadians report having, or having had, a mental-health condition such as depression or an anxiety disorder. “Given most adults spend more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else — and with many youth holding at least part-time jobs — addressing issues of mental health at work is vitally important,” says Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Ottawa-based Mental Health Commission of Canada.

“The statistics are very clear — mental health is an important issue that is affecting many Canadians,” says Sara Presutto, vice-president, Human Resources, Starbucks Canada. “We don’t believe the current level of support for mental-health benefits provided by Canadian employers is sufficient and we encourage all companies in Canada to step up and join this important effort.”

According to Linda Weichel, vice-president, Initiatives at CivicAction — a not-for-profit group focused on the GTA and Hamilton area — “the mental health of our labour force is one of the greatest risks or opportunities facing our region. We recognized there are some businesses that are thinking about the mental health of their people, but a lot more employers could be thinking about it and taking action.”

She says there needs to be more systemic change to make the workplace more supportive of people’s mental wellness and better able to support people when they are experiencing a mental-health crisis.

A recent Conference Board of Canada report flagged a higher level of mental-health issues in the service industry. In fact, 8.7 per cent of those who work in lodging or foodservice have experienced an anxiety disorder over their lifetime and 8.3 per cent have suffered a mood disorder in the last 12 months — the second-highest in terms of sectors. Weichel points to high demands placed on foodservice workers — from long hours under difficult circumstances to the fast-paced, stressful work environment. And, in an industry with a large number of part-time workers, there are fewer benefits available — meaning less access to support services.

It’s a challenge Starbucks Canada is meeting head-on. While most employer support for mental health covers the cost of three to four counselling sessions, Starbucks’ benefits allow for longer-term treatment. In addition, part-time employees, working a minimum of 20 hours per week, receive “full-time” benefits (including support services and more).

It’s this top-down approach that Weichel and her team are hoping becomes the norm. “Ultimately, it needs to start with senior leadership being committed to [mental-health support]. Are they even thinking about having a mental wellness strategy and showing a visible commitment to workplace mental well-being? The Mental Health Commission of Canada indicates that as being a critical piece of a mental-health supportive workplace.”

Having a program in place, Weichel says, will build a long-term, loyal workforce that is able to contribute. It’s just good business. “Those who are currently struggling with a mental-health issue could have an impact of $17 billion in lost productivity over the next 10 years (about $2,500 per person) in the labour force. If people can’t work at their highest levels, if they have to take time off, that’s a drain on productivity.”

In addition, millennials are leading the charge in abolishing the stigma around mental illness. “The younger generation [18 to 34] are more likely to report mental-health issues or significant stress. They may not have the coping skills for today’s work environment and are more comfortable talking about it,” says Weichel.

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