Benefit plans can help with mental illness, but many employees are still afraid to use them
Employees with mental-health problems can often rely on workplace benefit plans to take health-restoring short-term or long-term disability leave. — Thinkstock photo
If you’re dealing with a mental illness, everyday tasks can begin to look like insurmountable obstacles.
And if you’re battling stress or anxiety, worries over how to cover your bills if the illness becomes too intense for you to do your job may be enough to push you down that deep, dark hole.
Mental illness is a problem that affects one in five Canadians and that costs $6 billion in lost productivity a year, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. It’s also reflective of how the workplace has changed.
“Jobs are not as physical anymore. The type of work, the pace of work, the nature of work has changed,” said Marilee Mark, vice-president of market development for group benefits at Sun Life Financial.
“When that changes, you also expect to see some differences in the types of illnesses that we’re going to see in the workplace.”
While insurance companies used to see more claims for back injuries when jobs were more physical, they’re now seeing a higher percentage for mental health, because the jobs are more sedentary, she said.
About 30 per cent of short- and long-term disability claims are now attributed to mental-health problems and illnesses.
If a person is employed, there are provisions under any standard group benefit plan that would cover the need for short-term or long-term disability, regardless of the cause of the illness.
Employee benefit plans don’t distinguish what the cause of the illness is, unless it’s a workplace accident.
“Even before somebody is off work, employers offer a lot of supportive programs for mental illness, whether it’s an employee and family assistance program,” said Mark.
“So that can give you counselling, it could be access to a pharmacy benefit plan, if you need medication or if you need to see a psychologist.”
Some may think that critical illness insurance may be a type they can turn to in this type of situation, but that isn’t a plan currently designed to cover mental health.
Part of the problem, experts say, is that employees don’t always know the benefits are there.
They suggest taking a look at your benefits to see what’s covered and whether there are any resources you can tap into before things get so bad that you need to take time off.
Managers are also being trained to spot the problems and be more accommodating to try to deal with the issue in the early stages, whether it’s a matter of directing the employee to an assistance program to find a psychologist or allowing a day off to regroup.
A much bigger problem, however, is that employees often worry about accessing benefits or making their condition known for fear of being judged.
“I think within the work environment, it has evolved over the past five to six years tremendously,” said Claude Di Stasio, vice-president of Quebec affairs for the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association.
“But still for some, maybe the person living it, it’s still a taboo, something that they’re not proud of, because they think everyone else is going to point the finger.”
The stigma persists, because the problem isn’t visible to the naked eye.
“You break a leg, everybody knows. It’s a work accident, everybody knows,” said Di Stasio.
Campaigns by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and Bell’s “Let’s Talk” initiative are working to address these perceptions, but more work still needs to be done.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just focusing on something that can be more helpful to ensure these employees remain productive,” she said.
“The scarcity of resources that’s coming makes it so that we need to take care of the good ones, or the ones we have.”
What’s more, if companies don’t help employees remain at work and active, it’s going to cost them a lot more in sick days and lost productivity.
One caution for those working on a part-time basis or on contract, however, is that group benefits often don’t cover these workers, so they’d be wise to think ahead and apply for their own individual life or disability insurance.
These will need to be underwritten, so they will include some kind of assessment, but once you’re signed up, you will have coverage as long as you are paying your premiums.
Regardless of the type of coverage you have, experts agree that what matters is being aware of your options and accessing them early if you think you need to, to prevent having an even bigger problem down the road.