Entrepreneurs need to take an increased interest in their employees’ health. If they don’t, governments may be forced to do so since mental health issues are costing society more and more.

François Laflamme, president of Optima Global Health, is urging Canadian businesses to take action. “There is evidence that prevention is more cost effective than treatment. The challenge is to put it into action. Prevention is something more intangible, abstract, and difficult to quantify. If an insurer has the choice between spending $1 on helping someone return to work or $1 on a preventive measure, what does it do? Quite frankly, the dollar it spends on rehabilitation is obvious proof that it could have helped to prevent a prolonged period away from work. So, would it have been possible to prevent the case ahead of time and save more money?

That is the question of the moment, says Mr. Laflamme whose company offers organizations an integrated range of services aimed at preventing employee absenteeism and disability, as well as accelerating employees’ sustainable recovery and return to work.

Mr. Laflamme adds that insufficient medical resources, lack of specialists, and the fact that some psychologists’ services are not covered by provincial governments are all not helping to solve mental health issues. “Without proactive and integrated intervention, at the end of six months the employee could end up with a chronic health problem. And, when we know that a month-long disability reduces the chance of re-joining the workforce by 50%, it is a cause for concern. After two years, we’re talking about only a 10% chance that the person will return to work,” he says.
Insurers aware of their role

Mr. Laflamme says that insurers are more and more aware of the role that the employer must play in relation to its employees. He points out that the insurer’s primary role is to step in should there be an “accident”.

“The insurer does not necessarily have to be there to prevent it. There are limits to its responsiblity. The insurer cannot change a person’s lifestyle. However, the insurer does bear a certain amount of responsibility for its part. And that calls for a heightened awareness. People spend half of their waking life at work. Don’t tell me that the employer has no responsibility there,” he says.

Mr. Laflamme emphasizes that it is very difficult to change someone’s habits. “The person tends to change when he’s had a serous warning,” he comments.

If employers do nothing, Mr. Laflamme believes that governments could introduce legislation in order to force them into playing a greater role in preventative health for their employees, particularly for mental health issues such as depression. “Don’t forget, they did it for workplace accidents. It is not impossible it could come to that, given the significant increase in mental health problems. So governments would come and help employers keep their workforce healthy,” he notes.

Mr. Laflamme adds that some things, such as the work environment, are not the responsibility of Workers’ Compensation. “I challenge a union member to use it as a cause of disability. Interpersonal conflict can be extremely toxic for a person. Ultimately, it is the insurance that picks up the slack and compensates these people for depression issues,” he says.
For this reason, Mr. Laflamme says he is enthusiastic about the new standard that the Canadian Mental Health Commission has established for psychological health and safety in the workplace. He notes that it is a voluntary standard, but it has been endorsed by the Canadian Standards Association. It provides companies with a framework they can use to address issues related to their employees’ mental health. Most notably, the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (CLHIA), has endorsed it.

“The industry has turned a corner. It means that insurers believe in it. You can see it. Ten years ago, 70% of disability cases were related to physical problems and 30% to mental problems. It is exactly the reverse today. With this standard, the Commission is claiming that mental health is part of a safe work environment. It is moving in small steps, as the government did when it banned smoking in public areas. They did not impose it all of a sudden,” says Mr. Laflamme.

The World Health Organization has sounded the alarm: one in two disability cases is now caused by mental health issues. Mental health is now the second most common health problem in the world. And so it is not without reason that the insurance industry has taken an interest in this standard, even if it is a difficult step to take. Mr. Laflamme suggests that businesses will be asked to adopt this standard, although it may take several years and both provincial and federal governments may be required to introduce legislation for it. “We must not forget that some workplaces are very unhealthy,” he comments.

However, Mr. Laflamme believes that one should also consider the fact that young people are more sensitive to the quality of life at work. He argues that they are better educated and are more sensitive to their well-being. “In a situation where there is a shortage of labour, entrepreneurs will have no choice but to take an interest in the matter. Businesses that have not taken steps to help their workers stay in good psychological health will no longer be competitive in their field. This is something we hear more and more. This is also the message that we are conveying. Businesses will have no choice but to invest in their employees’ health,” he says.