Mental health: a concerning reality impacting employer bottom line

World Health Organization has declared loneliness to be a pressing global threat, but are employers prepared?

Mental health: a concerning reality impacting employer bottom line
Paula Allen, global leader and vice president of research and insights, TELUS Health

Workers’ mental health is at levels in line with lows during the pandemic. This can impact their health and productivity, so employers need to take note and make sure they have support systems in place.

Young Canadian workers under 40 are increasingly feeling isolated and lonely compared to their older colleagues, finds TELUS Health in its latest TELUS Mental Health Index. In fact, the Index shows the mental health of workers has declined to levels in line with lows during the pandemic.

Nearly half (45 per cent) of workers say they do not have relationships with people they trust at work while younger workers are more likely to lack trusted relationships altogether. The lack of trusted relationships is a factor in loneliness, which can lead to lower mental health scores and poorer physical health.

Loneliness a pressing global threat

It’s a global phenomenon as the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared loneliness to be a pressing global threat. Moreover, the effects of isolation and loneliness are now recognized and compared to well-known health risks such as smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity.

“The Index findings reflect a concerning reality, in particular for our younger workers,” says Paula Allen, global leader and vice president of research and insights, TELUS Health. “It also impacts businesses as loneliness and social isolation negatively impact both health and workplace productivity. Rapid societal changes, alongside diminishing social support, are taking their toll.

“Additionally, there are challenges like inflation, housing affordability, and job loss risks that are clear stressors, especially at the start of a person’s career when there is typically less financial stability. Organizations can help by focusing on building a culture of trust, which counters isolation, and highlighting their health, personal, and financial programs, which offer crucial support.”

Not surprisingly, she says the efforts to combat the negative impacts of isolation and loneliness on employee health and productivity not only improve wellbeing but also have financial benefits for employers.

Currently, however, the Index finds that 15 percent of employees rate their company’s culture around mental health as negative. On top of that,10 percent of workers do not feel valued and respected by their colleagues.

Canadians are at risk for mental health issues

Employers need to be aware that 33 percent of workers in Canada have a high mental health risk, 45 per cent have a moderate mental health risk, and 22 per cent have a low mental health risk. It is an issue that needs to be addressed.

“When we don't have that sense of connection with others, when we don't have social support, when we don't have that feeling of belonging, all of which are connected to feeling isolated, we respond with a fear reaction,” says Allen. “And if we can’t let go of that fear, if it's chronic and we carry it with us for a long period of time, it makes us a lot more sensitive to stress and less able to be resilient with the changes in life. It also wears down our physical health.

“There’s a lot of discussion around whether the return to the office will solve this mental health crisis. The data doesn’t tell me if that is the case, but the data I do see says when you have trusted relationships at work that makes a difference in whether you feel that sense of isolation. Forty-five percent of Canadian workers don't feel that sense of trust regardless of where they work.”

Allen says employers need to start by assessing their culture, looking at what they offer in terms of mental health support, and determining how well these benefits and policies are integrated into the culture.

As far as choosing what initiatives are the best ones to implement, Allen says employers need to make sure that the benefits match the needs. “That’s part of the reason why we do the Mental Health Index,” she says. “We do research to make sure that we're keeping on top of what the needs of the population are and what current opportunities are available to meet those needs for continuous improvement. But we also provide assistance for organizations to help them understand what they can do.”

TELUS Health offers the Mental Health Index free of charge on its website. “Employers can read it, look at their industry results, or they can use it to look at their own population. We also offer free of charge the Workplace Strategy Index for Mental Health on our website. This Index is a self assessment tool. This Index is built on Canadian national standards and other global frameworks such as ISO. We developed this tool so organizations can measure themselves and get a score to see if they're doing the best that they possibly can for their people.”

Communication of mental health strategies is vital

Communicating mental health support, programs, and culture is vital for these initiatives to be effective because almost a quarter (21 per cent) of workers in Canada do not know whether or not their employer provides mental health benefits. As well, only a third of Canadian workers don’t know what an employee assistance program (EAP) is, and what it does.

“Many people have great benefits,” says Allen. “They have processes in place that are supportive and they have the infrastructure, but their employees have no idea. If the employees don't know about it, then it does not exist.

“Employers need to take an approach of marketing what they have available and what they are doing and reminding employees on an ongoing basis of the services and supports that are available to them. Ongoing communication about services also helps to show that the employer cares about people and their well-being.”

Creating a supportive and inclusive work environment is not only a responsibility, but also an invaluable opportunity for employers to proactively shape the wellbeing of their teams, says the report. With the physical and mental impacts of isolation now being discussed more broadly, it would be wise for employers to acknowledge it as a health risk and prioritize meaningful social connections to support employee wellbeing. In addition to implementing EAPs and other initiatives to address the mental strain, fostering a healthy and connected workplace environment enables individuals to thrive. This, in turn, leads to improved retention, productivity, engagement, and overall better health outcomes.