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Starbucks Canada is earning praise from mental-health advocates and being touted as a smart business decision by benefits experts for their increase in employee funding for mental-health treatment. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Starbucks Canada is earning praise from mental-health advocates and being touted as a smart business decision by benefits experts for their increase in employee funding for mental-health treatment. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Why Starbucks Canada's investment in mental health therapy matters Add to ...

For many Canadians struggling with mental-health issues, therapy isn’t an option. Private help is expensive and the psychologists and social workers in the public systems are difficult to access. Doctors report having too few options for patients who need therapy but don’t have the money or employee insurance to pay for it. And even those with workplace benefits often don’t get enough to cover more than a handful of appointments.

That’s what makes a new step by Starbucks Canada so significant: The coffee chain announced Wednesday that it will give $5,000 a year to its employees to cover the cost of therapy, up from $400. The decision creates one of the largest pots for this kind of coverage in the country. It’s earning praise from mental-health advocates, for removing the nickel-and-diming from a valuable treatment and being touted as a smart business decision by benefits experts, an example to other companies competing to keep happy their millennial work force.

Related: How to fix Canada’s mental health system

Related: The case for publicly funded therapy

Read more: Niall McGee didn’t believe in depression – until cancer medication put him in a suicidal spiral

It would be easy to see this as a cost-effective charm offensive – one landing, “coincidentally” Starbucks says, during mental-health awareness week – especially as companies work to establish their do-gooder social values with discriminating customers. The benefit, though large, is not likely to cost much.

As Mike Sullivan, president of Cubic Health, a health-care analytics company based in Toronto, pointed out, only a small portion of employees will use it. Investing in mental-health services, research shows, is also good for the bottom line. It reduces disability claims and absenteeism, increases employee satisfaction and loyalty. And the market for workers in food and retail is competitive, so another apple in the basket doesn’t hurt.

But the business case should only inspire more companies to step up.

Starbucks deserves real credit for correcting an inequity in the health-care system that has prevented young people from getting the treatment they need at a time in their lives when it would help them most. Under the Starbucks plan, employees won’t need a doctor’s note, a barrier to care most often experienced by lower-income workers and students – the very demographic that Starbucks can reach. (The average age of its employees is 24.)

The company is also not restricting the kind of therapy that will be covered, only requiring staff to see a licensed psychologist or social worker.

As with most other company benefits, employees have to work at least 20 hours a week to receive it. Starbucks say this includes roughly three-quarters of their 19,000 Canadian employees. The company is also keeping its employee assistance plan, available to all staff, which covers short-term therapy, either on the phone or in person.

This move adds the coffee chain to a still small, but growing, cadre of Canadian companies making significant investments in workplace wellness, said Paula Allen, vice-president of research at Morneau-Shepell, a benefits consulting and admiinstration company. Ms. Allen, who specializes in mental-health issues, said some of those programs include expanding employee assistance plans, covering therapy for staff on disability, training managers in mental-health awareness, and upping coverage for therapy.

On that front, however, the Starbucks benefit is a go-big-or-stay-home dollar figure, enough to provide roughly 25 sessions with a psychologist and many more with a social worker. Even federal public servants – with one of the best employee packages in the country – only get $2,000 an individual, after the government doubled it in 2014.

According to Sara Presutto, vice-president of human resources for Starbucks Canada, the idea for the benefit came out a series of forums with employees last summer. Mental health, Ms. Presutto says, “was the No. 1 topic they wanted to talk about.” The benefit, she says, “is a really big step for our company.” And only a first one, she insists. After all, coverage for therapy only goes as far as the company’s culture – and your manager – makes you feel free to use it.

That may be less of an issue, however, for a millennial work force that appears to prefer holistic options to taking drugs to treat illness. Psychotherapy is recommended by research bodies and mental-health institutes as a first-try treatment for moderate anxiety and depression. And since mental illness most often appears when a person is young, stepping up access to this age group is sound social (and corporate) policy.

“Right now, I can’t think of any bigger mental-health priority, particularly at a time when access to health services are so poor,” says Louise Bradley, the CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, who called the Starbucks initiative “a bold step.”

If that makes customers feel better when they order up their grande-soy-milk-chai lattes, perhaps that’s a perk Starbucks deserves. Maybe while sipping our java, we can ponder why it takes a coffee company to provide real access to treatment in our mental health care system.

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