Boosting benefits for mental health

Employers such as the Co-operators, Sun Life and RBC offer more to support employees, hope to reduce costs in other areas

Boosting benefits for mental health
Canadian employers are providing more coverage for employees when it came to mental health benefits. Credit: Faces: pio3; Maze: CHIARI VFX; Clouds: Sabphoto; Forest: Smileus (Shutterstock)


When the Co-operators first considered providing more coverage for employees when it came to mental health benefits, it wasn’t apparent there was a problem in the first place.

“We were not getting a lot of usage of it. It sort of flew under the radar, and some people felt ‘If they’re not even using the $500, why would we increase it?’” says Maureen Gillespie, vice-president of HR at the Co-operators in Guelph, Ont.

“But when we started to delve into it a bit more and talk to people about it, what we found was happening was people weren’t even getting started on any course of treatment or any kind of counselling because a $500 benefit isn’t enough to really give them the number of appointments they would need to get the help they needed.”

As a result, the insurance company decided to increase coverage for mental health benefits to $5,000 per year, per family member, and expand the number of eligible practitioners beyond psychologists and social workers to include family therapists, clinical counsellors and psychotherapists.

While there will be higher costs to providing the benefits, there should be a net benefit overall to the 5,000-employee organization, says Gillespie.

“Whatever we spend in counselling expenses will be more than offset by creating conditions where we can allow people — who have mental health issues or personal things that are impacting them — to continue to stay at work and be productive, versus having to leave work and go on a medical leave, which is a huge cost to the organization,” she says.

“If you think about the cost of someone’s salary for even one day, it doesn’t take long to make up the cost of us paying for their counselling to enable them to continue to be productive at work.”

This boost in coverage follows the lead of other employers in Canada such as Sun Life, RBC, Manulife and Starbucks that are looking to better support employees — while potentially reducing costs in other areas.

100 per cent employer-paid at RBC

Since instituting a higher mental health benefit for employees and their dependants in July 2017, RBC has seen a drop in short-term disability (STD) claims, according to Nadine Orr, vice-president of pension and benefits at RBC in Toronto.

“We’ll continue to monitor it and if it continues over the next year or two, then I think we can probably speculate that it is somewhat related.”

The expense of the upped benefits would definitely help offset costs in areas such as disability management, she says.

“The cost of having someone off work is significant, it’s more than $3,000... and then having to replace them or stressing other co-workers because the work has to be disseminated, it pays for itself.”

Previously, this type of benefit was part of a flexible benefits package at RBC, so employees would select various options and pay premiums, then receive coverage for $500 or $1,000 as part of paramedical coverage, says Orr.

“We pulled it out completely from there and said, ‘You know what, everybody should have access, the same amount of access, and a much higher amount of access’.’”

RBC decided on an annual amount of $3,000 that is 100 per cent employer-paid.

“We were thinking that mental health was definitely something that our employees were having issues accessing,” she says. “Definitely for a portion of our population, $500 probably wasn’t enough, people were probably thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to go for two sessions, and then I’m going to have to pay for it, it’s going to be cost-prohibitive.’”

As for choosing the amount of $3,000, Orr says RBC looked at a few things, such as what other employers were offering and the costs of counselling.

“We’ll probably, like all limits, revisit it on an annual basis,” she says. “As our employees are using it, we may review the amount depending on what services cost, and depending too if the government comes out and is covering a certain service.”

Previously, the benefit covered only psychologists, but now the list of services has expanded to include social workers, family therapists, psychotherapists, marriage counsellors and clinical counsellors.

“Part of it is that people are now accessing it for different purposes, and things like cognitive behavioural therapy, which wasn’t covered before, for children for instance, is now covered,” says Orr.

And while it’s still early days, usage rates thus far are high, she says.

“What I’ve heard the most is parents accessing it for their children, it’s been a huge help, and I think it’s a lift of stress on the parents as well, that they’re able to get their children the help they need.”

Sun Life offers $12,500

In the two years since Sun Life Financial boosted its mental health benefits, utilization has gone up — but people are not hitting the maximum of $12,500 per year, according to Karen Figueiredo, vice-president of global pension and benefits at Sun Life in Toronto.

“That tells us we have room and the maximum is reasonable and it’s affordable for us, and also allows our employees to get the care they need.”

The move was part of the company’s focus on overall employee well-being in three key areas — mental health, physical health and financial health.

“We recognized that the limits we had in place at the time, you could very quickly exceed the maximums because of the hourly rates professional services providers in this space would charge. We really wanted to ensure people were getting the care, the continuity of care... because many of the conditions individuals face would not be treatable in just a few sessions,” she says.

“It’s definitely an investment that we’re making in the long-term health of our employees.”

In addition to increasing the amount of coverage, Sun Life also came up with a list of eligible practitioners for employees to use in seeking help.

“We worked with our EAP (employee assistance program) providers to ensure they were referring their patients, after initial consultations were happening, to eligible providers,” says Figueiredo. “So we have a very effective referral program.”

As for the return on investment, Sun Life is encouraged by the early results, she says.

“Our trend rate is actually stabilizing, so that’s a preliminary view,” says Figueiredo. “Over time, we’re going to expect potentially increased use because of awareness in our EAP, but decreases in things like our absenteeism and our health care, certain types of claims, drug claims, for mental health issues as well as LTD (long-term disability) and STD incidents. That hasn’t played out in a dramatic way as of yet, but we’re encouraged by the early results.”

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