Making the link between mental health and disability management

An employer’s role can seem ambiguous and it can be difficult to know where to start

Making the link between mental health and disability management
To understand rising disability costs, employers must recognize the key role that mental health claims have on overall plan costs. Credit: GrAI (Shutterstock)





Rising employee benefits costs increasingly challenge a company’s ability to stay competitive. This includes the impact that disability claims have on overall benefits costs.

To understand rising disability costs, employers must recognize the key role that mental health claims have on overall plan costs. Seventy per cent of disability costs in the workplace are attributed to mental illness and one-third of short- and long-term disability claims are related to mental health problems, according to a 2014 report from the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC).

Compounding matters, employees with short-term disability claims that begin as physical concerns are at an increased risk of becoming long-term mental health claimants.

In any given week, 500,000 Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems or illnesses, according to the MHCC. And even five years ago, mental health problems and illnesses among working adults in Canada cost employers more than $6 billion in lost productivity from absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover.

Employers want employees to be happy, healthy and productive. But mental health and disability claims are a complex matter for any employer to manage. The employer’s roles and responsibilities can seem ambiguous, and it can be difficult to know where to start.

If an employer feels uncomfortable discussing an employee’s mental health, imagine how difficult it could be for an employee to raise the issue — many feel uncomfortable talking to their employer about their mental illness for fear of discrimination or dismissal.

Prevention options

Prevention is one of the biggest ways an employer can take to increase employee mental wellness (and reduce claims). This can include initiatives such as:

•Inspiring health and wellness by providing healthy snacks and by encouraging walking or running clubs during lunch breaks or after work.

•Educating employees on their group benefits. Encourage employees to make use of programs that support their mental and physical health such as employee family assistance programs, or physical wellness services like physiotherapy and massage therapy.

•Be aware of stigmas associated with disability and maintain an open mind regarding employee health concerns. Creating an open dialogue with employees will help them to feel comfortable to discuss their symptoms early on, rather than suffering in silence.

Identifying warning signs

Mental health concerns can often be episodic: Employees experience periods of wellness alternating with those when functioning is low. This makes it difficult to know when an employee is struggling.

By intervening early and offering access to proper treatment at the onset of symptoms, employers can help reduce the duration and likelihood that the symptoms will have a prolonged impact on a person’s well-being.

It’s important to remember that symptoms of a non-physical illness can vary depending on the diagnosis or person, and they can be physical, psychological or behavioural. If the symptoms are severe enough, they can impact a person’s overall functioning and hinder her ability to perform her job well.

An employee who is experiencing symptoms of a mental illness may exhibit changes such as: frequent late arrivals or absences; difficulty meeting deadlines; behaviour changes such as loss of interest, angry outbursts, problems regulating their emotions, uncharacteristic signs of distraction, concentration or memory problems; decreased productivity; or excessively high or low energy levels.

Identifying these symptoms early on, and supporting the employee by reminding him of the resources and treatments available, can have a positive impact on the employee’s health outcome or disability claim.

Employer’s role, responsibility

Employers have both a procedural and substantive duty to accommodate an employee’s mental health concern — even if the employee is not capable of expressing this need. This means the duty to accommodate can arise not only when an employee reports a mental illness, but also when the employee exhibits apparent mental health-related problems in the workplace.

It is important to ensure medical confidentiality is respected. This can be achieved by focusing the conversation on an employee’s capabilities and competencies related to his workplace function. As an employer, it is important to work with employees to determine effective return-to-work strategies.

Key questions employers can ask employees include:

•What will allow you to be successful at your job and still have energy at the end of the day?

•What can you do to successfully manage your return to work and maintain your well-being?

•What can your workplace or supervisor do to support a successful and sustainable return to work for you?

•How can feedback be provided to you in a positive and constructive way?

•How should future issues be managed in a way that is positive and healthy for you?

These questions are all based around the holistic goal of supporting an employee with mental health concerns to be successful at his job while maintaining his well-being.

There are many no-cost and low-cost ideas that help support success for psychological health-related concerns.

Mental illness often requires social or organizational accommodations.

Some examples of how to accommodate an employee with mental illness include:

•flexible scheduling, which may include altering start and end times and providing shorter, but more frequent, breaks

•changes in supervision, which may include modifying the way instructions and feedback are given or setting up weekly meetings to help address problems before they become more serious

•modifying specific job duties by exchanging minor tasks with other employees

•using technology, such as headphones, to block out noise or using a tape recorder to record instructions if an employee is experiencing difficulty with memory

•modifying the workspace by allowing an employee to work from home or relocate to a quieter area of the office

•removing all but essential functions of the job to improve concentration

•breaking larger tasks into a series of smaller tasks

•providing instructions in writing so employees can refer to them if they have trouble remembering

•outlining clear expectations and providing written work agreements

•allowing time off to attend counselling sessions or medical appointments.

Establishing a mental wellness program in the workplace is a team effort. Research indicates that when a company puts a strategy in place that includes commitment from all members of the organization, not just human resources, the success of the program is much greater.

Employers have an opportunity to lead the fight against mental health stigma and ensure employees get the help they need. By providing excellent workplace support and quality employee benefits, employers can ensure those with mental health challenges remain productive, healthy and happy.

Matt Houghton is the Vancouver-based CEO of GroupHEALTH Benefit Solutions, a third-party benefits administrator. For more information, visit

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