Boost mental health care benefits as employees return to the office, Ontario’s social workers say

Employers bringing their workers back to the office ought to consider raising the amount for mental health in their benefit plans to $1,500 to give employees support during a tumultuous time, the province’s social workers say.

Dr. Deepy Sur of the Ontario Association of Social Workers says the increase is needed to help employees access regular continuing counselling during a stressful, tumultuous time where some workers are heading back to their physical workplaces after up to two whole years away.

“The work place has changed forever and we need to respond to that change,” she told CP24. “We’re thinking about increases in anxiety, stress, caregiver distress, children, family in long-term care, and mental health benefits are a crucial tool in keeping the echo pandemic in check.”

The “echo pandemic” is a term mental health professionals coined for the expected increase in mental health issues associated with the isolation, workplace burnout, feelings of loss and changes in parenting brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sur, whose organization represents more than 8,000 social workers in Ontario, says they’re making the request because new research shows most employee benefit plans do not provide enough to allow for regular ongoing counselling for workers navigating new challenges such as the return to the physical workplace or new stressors at home, and many employee benefit plans offer nothing for mental health care at all.

A February 2022 poll of 1,000 Ontario residents by Leger found only 54 per cent of respondents had benefits at work, and only 36 per cent had a plan that included any allowance for mental health care.

The median amount allowed was $750.

With a cap of $750 in expenses, Sur said “you often don’t have enough to get that regular support.”

“Our research has told us that $1,500 allows people to think about developing (mental health care) access over time,” Sur said.

Only 28 per cent of respondents to the poll indicated mental health care was easy to access.

Eighty-six per cent of respondents characterized mental health professionals as an essential service.

Sur said employers need to acknowledge that a good benefits plan that demonstrates empathy with employees has to be more than just drugs and dental.

“Many employers don’t know and have not thought about mental health care as part of an employee benefits package.”

Broader access to mental health care is now becoming of focus of provincial political parties gearing up for the June 2022 election.

The Ontario NDP want to add regular access to mental health care to the Ontario Health Insurance Plan and the Ontario PCs have pledged $3.8 billion more for mental health and addictions supports over the next 10 years.

The Liberals have pledged creating portable benefit plans for all workers, which include coverage for mental health care.

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