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Employees want more than lip service when it comes to mental health support: Experts

TORONTO — Bhagyashri Pawar was surprised to see a previous employer make headlines last year for its investments in mental health programs for its staff.

TORONTO — Bhagyashri Pawar was surprised to see a previous employer make headlines last year for its investments in mental health programs for its staff. 

“Having worked there, I never figured out where these efforts were made,” said the 31-year-old Toronto-based online marketing manager.

Pawar said the company refused to allow employees to work remotely during pandemic lockdown measures until several employees tested positive for COVID-19. Many employees — some of whom were considered high risk — were anxious about catching COVID-19 during work hours or their commute, she added, but the company didn’t provide any support or solutions for those concerns.

“Being open about mental health is a lot more than just publishing a post on Instagram on World Mental Health Day or World Suicide Prevention Day,” Pawar said. 

“It’s great that so many organizations are speaking up about mental health, but at the same time, they shouldn’t be forgetting to actually show empathy.”

Experts say younger employees such as Pawar are seeking work environments where they can speak candidly about mental health and receive proactive support from their employers. 

Nora Jenkins Townson, founder of Toronto-based HR agency Bright + Early, explained that younger employees expect to be able to discuss mental health issues, and for those conversations to be more than lip service.

“I think younger people are more aware of mental health issues and accepting of them as medical issues,” she said, noting how talk therapy, for example, is no longer a taboo subject. 

She added that the pandemic has also caused people to rethink work and the role of mental health. 

“Though COVID-19 has been tough on us all, I feel it’s inspired more empathy in some workplaces,” she said. 

She’s been seeing an increase in companies that offer greater benefits when it comes to mental health, including time off and access to therapy. 

Her own company offers 16 hours of therapy per year through a virtual provider that doesn’t come out of the employees’ health spending account or regular benefits plan. 

Townson’s recommendation to leaders is to ensure benefits adequately support counselling, medications and other mental health supports. She also advises leaders to openly discuss mental health in the workplace and lead by example. 

For instance, this might look like someone in a leadership role taking a mental health day themselves if needed. 

In regards to sick days, Townson said, “Workplaces should ensure that they have them in place, communicate how they work and be clear that they cover mental health as well.”

Julie McCarthy, a management professor at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management in Toronto, said that the good news is leaders want to help more than ever, but some might be in reactive mode if they hadn’t put systems and policies in place for employee wellness before the pandemic hit. 

To best provide mental health support, McCarthy advises employers to adopt a tailored, data driven approach, explaining that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy that works. 

“The best companies that I’ve worked with over the years are the companies that are really good at monitoring their performance and their employees. And they do that within their own surveys and observational data. They really collect data on how their employees are doing and they adjust systems as needed,” she said.

Pawar also noted that employers could provide better mental health support if they spent more time listening to what their employees have to say and incorporating that feedback into their offerings. 

“While it’s good to host a virtual yoga session,” she said, “it’s about knowing the target audience.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2022.

Leah Golob, The Canadian Press