Struck by the deterioration in mental health at all levels of society since the start of the pandemic, Sun Life Canada President Jacques Goulet called for corporate leadership to find solutions. He made this appeal in a virtual talk at the Canadian Club of Montréal on May 10, 2021.

The problem was already brewing before the pandemic, Goulet points out. One in three claims (30 per cent) stems from mental health issues, he says. He shared data from Sun Life Canada’s 2019 long-term disability claims Index by diagnosis.

Mental health diagnoses are twice as prevalent in disability claims as cancer (15 per cent), Goulet adds. “Not only is it the number one cause (of disability), but it's also the fastest growing.” He points out that the presence of this cause in claims climbed 27 per cent between 2014 and 2019. A growing number of Canadians are suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, manic disorder or dysthymia, Goulet adds.

Goulet is concerned about the poor management of these disorders highlighted by a survey he released on December 8, 2020. “Our surveys show that 60 per cent of Quebecers and Canadians say they are currently experiencing mental health problems, and more than half of them (54 per cent) say they are not receiving any medical support.”

The reasons survey participants gave include: Didn't need it, couldn't afford it, or were ashamed to seek help. “This needs to change,” says Goulet. He emphasizes that everyone can experience mental health problems, regardless of age, social class, or culture of origin.

Women and youth more affected  

The pandemic has hit some people harder than others. Women and youth are the most affected. Of the participants in the insurer's survey, 62 per cent of women and 74 per cent of youth aged 18-34 said they had experienced mental health problems since the pandemic began.

The pandemic has further blurred the lines between the workplace and home, Goulet continues. “This affects women to a greater extent. Longer work hours, more chores at home, more caregiving...all cause additional stress for many women. We have even seen women with young children leave the workforce. This is unfortunate and very worrisome!”

The situation is also harder on families, Goulet says. Sun Life hosted a webinar on youth and family mental health. “I was overwhelmed by the number of parents who said they were anxious, who wanted to know how to help their children in psychological distress!” he said. The number of calls from parents seeking support for their children is unprecedented, he adds. “It’s a serious problem: Children are at risk, and they are our future leaders.”

A problem long in the making 

In a question and answer session following the presentation, IBM Canada CEO Claude Guay asked Goulet what factors have influenced the rise in mental health issues on the national scale. “Long before the pandemic, we were experiencing a major mental health crisis,” he replied. The causes: Social isolation, an economic structure where there are more and more part-time, contract jobs, and people experiencing greater precariousness, he listed.

During the pandemic, social isolation and confinement measures have ratcheted up stress and anxiety, Goulet continues. Major issues include pressure from social networks and, especially for young people, eco-anxiety. “Many young people are worried about the climate and the environment,” he points out.

There is in fact one positive point that could be fueling an increase in cases: “There is more openness nowadays to talk about mental health, to admit that we have problems, needs,” Goulet explains.

Investing and getting involved  

What is our role as an employer, as a leader? One: invest, and two: get involved, says Goulet. “We need to define a mental health strategy and invest in workplace support programs. Properly managed, these programs yield good returns.”

He cites a Deloitte analysis that found a positive median return on investment in these programs that can range from $1.62 in the first three years to $2.18 thereafter.

“Only one-third of Canadian employers have a mental health strategy,” Goulet adds. “It's up to us, as business leaders, to get things rolling.” He has been communicating with his employees much more often since the pandemic began. “We talk about mental health very, very often,” he emphasizes.

Asked about the best tools to put in place, Goulet replied that there are several mental health technologies available, including tools based on artificial intelligence. “Today we have several virtual platforms for remote consultation,” he says. He explains that these platforms let employees consult a specialist remotely, or even receive therapy without human intervention.

Lesson in leadership from the NBA 

Goulet recounts inviting Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors to a virtual conference April 2021. He asked the head coach of the NBA team to divulge the ingredients of a winning team. You have to energize, he replied.

“Nick didn't talk about having the best scouts or the best offensive or defensive strategies,” Goulet says. “He talked about energy. The energy that creates movement and pushes things forward.” The coach asks his players and his entire staff to be energy givers, Goulet explains.

“I want to share Nick Nurse's message with you today. In the face of a serious and unprecedented mental health crisis in this country, we need to step up as the powerhouse. We need to become the engine that makes things happen, to lead by example.”

Governments, health care professionals and insurers all have a key role to play in the quest for a comprehensive solution, he adds. “As employers, we can also do more.”

3,000 requests per day  

To set an example, Jacques Goulet highlighted Sun Life's achievements in mental health. All the same, he admits there is still a long way to go.

Sun Life has always prioritized the well-being of its employees, especially during the pandemic, Goulet continues. The insurer regularly surveys its employees about their psychological state. It has implemented mandatory mental health training for all its managers. It has doubled the number of personal days (leave for family or personal reasons) from 5 to 10 per year. It also covers mental health counselling for up to $12,500 per year.

Goulet gave the example of a new coaching initiative. “We recently launched a personalized coach to help employees and customers on their mental health journey.” The insurer has also developed a toolkit to help companies of all sizes develop their mental health strategy.

In addition, Sun Life launched Lumino Health in 2018. This digital platform for businesses and their employees notably helps customers find an appropriate health provider at the right time. A difficult task, “especially in mental health,” Goulet explains. “Currently, we’re seeing 3,000 mental health provider searches on the Lumino Health platform each day.”

Saving thousands of lives  

For Sun Life, the investments are important “and very much in line with our rationale,” Goulet says. More and more leaders are sharing this vision. He gave the example of Via Rail CEO Cynthia Garneau, who is committed to prioritizing mental health in the workplace. “She has integrated psychological health and safety into her business strategy. Despite the pandemic, the mental health of her employees continues to improve,” Goulet points out.

Whatever form the future of work takes, it will have to be guided by a solid mental health strategy, Goulet believes. “If Québec and Canada want to remain globally competitive, we must act now,” he says, adding “We need to galvanize and commit to improving our mental health practices and building healthy, sustainable communities. Together we can change and save thousands of lives.”