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Tara Ataya, chief people and diversity officer for Vancouver-based social media management platform Hootsuite, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Jan. 24.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Tara Ataya had a front-row seat to the spread of the pandemic’s detrimental effects on mental health as it made its way around the world.

As the people and diversity officer for Vancouver-based social media management platform Hootsuite, Ms. Ataya was already working with staff in Italy to manage the effects of social isolation before the first case showed up in Canada.

“There was an immense amount of anxiety in society – and our organization wasn’t immune,” she says. “Employees were struggling with what to do when it came to child care, what to do with feelings of stress and uncertainty, and it highlighted for us on the executive team that we needed to lean into those conversations and we needed to act quickly.”

Since the initial outbreak, Hootsuite has instituted a range of policies and programs designed to address employee mental health needs. For example, the company now offers 20 paid personal days to manage COVID-19-related needs – no doctor’s note required.

Hootsuite also increased its mental health coverage sixfold to provide full coverage on treatments, offered culturally-appropriate trauma counselling, a subscription to a meditation app and introduced a companywide “wellness week” – where staff were encouraged to fully unplug from work – in July of 2020, among other initiatives.

“Without a focus on mental health, organizations really run the risk of employee burnout and employee churn, which we know is very expensive,” Ms. Ataya says. “Organizations that fail to invest here will continue to lose great talent.”

An RBC Insurance study shows mental health-related disability claims have been on the rise across all age groups and are now the most common long-term disability claim in the country. Such challenges are especially acute among younger workers, with nearly half of all new group long-term disability claims among those aged 18 to 35 related to mental health.

At the same time, nearly half of younger workers indicated that their benefits plan did not sufficiently address their health and wellness needs this past year.

“Working Canadians have been facing new stressors over the last year and a half or so that are having a negative impact on our mental health,” explains Julie Gaudry, head of group benefits for RBC Insurance. “The mental health of employees has long been a consideration for employers, but as the public health restrictions related to the pandemic continued on, we’ve seen an exacerbation of already-there issues, as well as new challenges.”

Failing to adequately address the mental health needs of employees can limit an organization’s success, especially in a competitive labour market. In fact, if given the choice, more than two-thirds of Canadians would favour a job with a strong benefits plan over one that offers greater compensation, according to the RBC Insurance study.

“As an employer, if you haven’t yet invested time and money into programs to support your employees’ mental health, you might be missing out on an opportunity to address an actual health need,” Ms. Gaudry says. “You’re also missing out on an opportunity in this labour market to have a program in place that prospective employees are looking for.”

In a highly competitive labour market, mental health supports are vital to reducing employee turnover and absenteeism, especially among younger workers. According to a recent study conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), nearly half a million Canadians miss work due to mental illness each week, creating an annual economic burden of approximately $51-billion.

Furthermore, 20 per cent of respondents have voluntarily left a job for mental health-related reasons, but that proportion jumps to 50 per cent among millennial respondents and a staggering 75 per cent among Gen Z employees.

“Your staff can’t invest in you if you don’t invest in your staff,” says Donna Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at CAMH. “It is an investment, but it’s one that’s worth making if you really want to have an effective, productive workplace where people can thrive.”

Ms. Ferguson advises employers seeking to tackle the mental health crisis among their work force to take a two-pronged approach.

The first is investing in employee assistance programs that offer mental health resources to address existing needs. Ms. Ferguson adds that new online counselling and other remote tools are reducing some of the friction that previously prevented employees from accessing those services.

“It just increases accessibility and flexibility,” she says. “If you make things more flexible, people are more apt to ask for help and to access help.”

The second prong requires an honest assessment of the workplace itself, and whether it contributes positively or negatively to employee mental health.

“An environment where the stigma is prominent is problematic; if people don’t feel comfortable coming forward, then you’re going to see lots more absenteeism,” she says. “If it’s a toxic culture, if there’s stigma, that’s actually one of the largest barriers for us to help people get back [to work] successfully.”

Reducing that stigma and creating a workplace culture that supports mental health has become a top priority for human resources professionals in the wake of the pandemic.

“There’s a broad spectrum of actions that organizations can and will take to reduce mental health issues,” says Manon Poirier, CPHR and executive director of the Ordre des Conseillers en Ressources Humaines Agréés, which regulates the chartered human resources profession in Quebec. “A lot of the work that can be done and is being done by HR professionals is looking at workloads that people have, talking about the working conditions, building an environment of trust and ensuring conflicts don’t go unresolved. "

Ms. Poirier adds that human resource professionals have been making the case for greater investment in mental health resources for years and are now being met by a more receptive audience.

“HR professionals have put forward this business case for many, many years, but now upper management is listening to it more,” she says. “It’s always a challenge to get resources for long-term issues like supporting mental health, but the business case is easier to make now, unfortunately, because we have the data.”