Mental health claims on the rise

Insurers, researchers, employers take steps to reduce effects
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/08/2009

About one-quarter to one-third of disability claims in Canada are mental health related, a proportion that has been steadily increasing, according to Irene Klatt, vice-president of health insurance for the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association.

With the World Health Organization predicting depression will be the second leading cause of disability by 2020, mental health at work is something employers, and insurers, can’t afford to ignore, said Klatt.

“What can we do to reduce the impact of that? Are there steps that we can take? Are there early intervention methods?” she said.

Not only is mental health costing employers when it comes to disability claims, it is also costing them in lost productivity. About 10 per cent of the Canadian working population has a mental disorder, resulting in about $17 billion in productivity losses each year, said Carolyn Dewa, program head for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH’s) work and well-being research and evaluation program.

Many of the people who go on disability for a mental illness have been with their company for at least 10 years, are in their mid-career and the company has invested a lot of time and resources in them, she said.

“They’re important resources to be able to keep on board,” said Dewa. “To lose them is another cost we don’t necessarily see when we’re talking about the cost (of mental health).”

Role of insurance providers

Since life and health insurers provide disability coverage and extended health benefits, they are in a position to reach employees, employers and health-care professionals and show some leadership, said Klatt.

To do that, the industry has committed to adopting a mental health strategy with five principles that provide a set of standards and best practices, which contribute to mental health and productivity, she said.

These include: raising awareness about mental health in the workplace; encouraging the development and promotion of best practices; supporting practices that facilitate prevention, early detection and intervention; promoting fair and effective disability management practices; and focusing on products and services that address issues related to mental health.

The strategy was developed by a committee of life and health insurers and approved by the board of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association which distributed the strategy to its members — all of the life and health insurers in Canada such as Sun Life, Manulife and Desjardins.

“We want to really encourage best practices and programs for a mentally fit workplace,” said Klatt.

That includes encouraging collaboration between insurers, employers, employees, doctors and other health-care providers, she said.

Poor economy, layoffs put spotlight on mental health

With the state of the economy, layoffs and uncertainty in the workplace, it is more important than ever to focus on mental health, said Dewa.

“As people have gotten laid off, the social networks in place at work have become weakened. Those social networks are important for people for their mental health and to reduce stress,” she said.

At the fourth annual Congress on Mental Health, hosted by CAMH in October, Dewa heard how more companies are seeing an increase in short-term disability rates related to mental health.

“It’s become costly to companies at a time when they’re trying to save money and cut back,” she said.

And, unfortunately, organizations don’t always know where to turn for help.

“There are a lot of options being offered but they’re not always scientifically evaluated to see if they’re effective,” she said.

One way to overcome this challenge is for more organizations to partner with researchers, she said. One organization recently worked with a research team to implement a pilot project that used a collaborative care model.

The program included collaboration between the employee on disability, the employee’s physician and a mental health specialist. After one year, the organization saw cost savings of about $500 per disability case, 22 fewer people went on long-term disability and the company reduced short-term disability by about 1,200 days, said Dewa.

Interventions don’t have to be complicated and costly, she said. The University of Toronto, for example, launched a “Take back lunch” program, which encourages employees to take a lunch break.

“There are simple things, also, that people can do,” said Dewa.

Direct Energy’s tactics

Direct Energy recently distributed two booklets on mental health — one for employees that describes various mental health conditions and one for managers to help them recognize and help employees with mental health issues.

Often mental health problems remain hidden at work, said Paul Werbiski, senior director of health, safety and environment at Direct Energy in Toronto. While employees might be comfortable discussing other illnesses with their manager, they are often wary of talking about mental health issues.

“The fact that these problems exist and basically influence people’s behaviours and their moods and productivity is something that we should be aware of,” he said. “The whole idea is to raise awareness and dispel any stigma that mental health has in society.”

Mental health disorders keep employees from being able to reach their full potential, both at work and in their personal lives, said Gloria Phibbs, corporate health, wellness, safety and environment manager at Direct Energy.

“We’re trying to offer a culture that creates a place where people feel they can come for help. The end result is they’re happy, healthy and productive,” she said.

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