Link Between Chronic Disease and Mental Health Is Costing Employers

With accelerating interplay between mental and physical health, urgency to find a big-picture solution is growing

Link Between Chronic Disease and Mental Health Is Costing Employers

Chronic disease is on the rise, affecting more Canadians than ever before. Diabetes is one of the many illnesses sweeping the nation. In a 2022 study, Diabetes Canada estimates over 11.7 million Canadians live with diabetes or prediabetes. As the Canadian population ages, chronic disease will become a larger, more complex issue to manage.

Some Employers Wait for Increased Disability Costs

Employers are taking notice. In a Sanofi survey, over 75 per cent of employers indicated they were concerned about the impact of unmanaged chronic disease on their workplace. While some employers wait for a disruption in operations, increased disability costs, and reduced productivity, others are taking action. Through prevention and support, these employers are helping their employees live a healthier life. They are also reducing the impact of chronic conditions on their organization.

While the proactive approach of employers is commendable, some may still be missing the mark. Often prevention and support of those with chronic conditions focuses on the physical aspects. However, we must think of prevention and support more holistically – taking body and mind into account.

Physical and mental health are fundamentally linked. Those with serious mental health issues are at a higher risk of experiencing chronic conditions. For example, those diagnosed with serious mental health issues are more likely to develop diabetes than the general population. Some experts believe those with mental health issues are more susceptible to adopting unhealthy behaviours such as poor eating habits, over/ under sleeping, and substance issues. These can trigger chronic disease risk factors like obesity and high cholesterol.

On the other hand, those with chronic physical health conditions experience greater mental health issues. According to Diabetes Canada, depression is more common in those with diabetes compared to the general population, with major depression present in approximately 15 per cent of those with diabetes. Left untreated, co-existing poor mental health and diabetes can hinder healthy behaviours. This is key to managing physical aspects of the disease like blood sugar levels.

The pandemic and its after-effects have only made the situation worse. Mental health claims are on the rise and the delay in chronic disease diagnosis and treatment isn’t helping.

Why Employers Should Solve for The Big Picture

Mental and physical health are interconnected and must be viewed side-by-side. Employers need to focus on the bigger picture to ensure they are taking care of their employees, holistically.

The cost of chronic conditions to workplaces is staggering. It’s even more alarming when we layer mental health as a contributor to chronic conditions. For example:

  • Mental health issues lead to higher rates of absence, lower rates of productivity, and increased disability claims costs.
  • Mental health claims account for more claims than any other diagnosis.
  • Mental health issues are the leading cause of workplace disability and the fastest growing claim type.

Employers are ideally positioned to support their employees’ mental, physical, and financial well-being. By providing support, employers can secure a healthier future not only for their employees, but for their organization.

The foundation for a strong healthy workplace starts with two things: removing the stigma and providing the right tools and resources.

To break the cycle between mental health issues and chronic conditions, leaders must promote a psychologically safe workplace. They must normalize conversations around health in the workplace. This is especially important around mental health.

At the peak of the pandemic, more than a third of Canadians did not feel safe talking about mental health at work. Getting too personal in the workplace has traditionally been viewed as unprofessional. However, this perception is evolving, especially as organizations adjusted to challenges brought on by the pandemic. Professional and personal lives are blending.

As life returns to pre-pandemic routines, we must not fall into old patterns. Organizations need to prioritize and encourage conversations from the top down around health and well-being. It’s an ongoing process that benefits everyone. Employers can support their employees by facilitating access and affordability to resources and tools that increase engagement in their well-being.

Unique Health Journey

In a Sanofi survey, 84 per cent of plan members with a chronic disease would like to know more about their condition and how to treat it. Many workplace plans offer tools and resources to help employees on their unique health journey. This includes employee assistance programs, virtual care platforms, health guides, webinars, and, of course, extended healthcare coverage.

A gap employers can help fill is awareness – ensuring employees know what is available to them. In one case study, increasing awareness of mental health re- sources contributed to a 25 per cent increase in the use of mental health coverage within a years’ time. Increasingly employers are viewing higher coverage maximums as an investment, not a cost. By eliminating the financial barrier for employees, they can lower claims incidence and return those on disability leave to health and work sooner.

Creating a strong workplace culture of health can seem daunting, but is imperative to an organization’s success. Companies that make their employees’ bodies and minds a priority not only see their people thrive, but see their businesses thrive.


Marie-Chantal Côté is Senior Vice President, Group Benefits at Sun Life.