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Managing mental health disability claims


With more than 300 million people affected, the World Health Organization (WHO) says depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. The impact is ricocheting in the workplace, resulting in an increased number of disability claims.

“In our experience, short-term mental disability claims are on the rise,” says Eleanor Culver, president of REAL HR. “With our clients, we are seeing younger employees that are not only more aware of their needs, when it comes to mental health hygiene, but also more willing to speak up about those needs.”

Culver adds that employees with a more “old-school approach” to mental health do not always necessarily know when there is something going on with them. More often than not, these employees will try to ignore and/or hide any symptoms. This, says Culver, is likely one of the main reasons we are seeing an increase in the probability of long-term disability claims for mental health reasons.

In response to the rise in mental health disability claims, Manulife’s head of global benefits and wellness, Maria Fraga, says the company launched a $10,000 fully-paid mental health benefit for employees and their family members in Canada in 2017.

“Since that benefit launch, we have seen a reduction in the number of mental health-related disability claims compared to data from 2016 and earlier. We have also seen return-to-work cases increase during this period.

“At Manulife, we have removed any real or perceived cost barrier so that employees and their families can get the care they need, when they need it. Getting help often comes with a hefty out-of-pocket price tag, which can keep care out of reach for those who really need it.”

Fraga adds, “Early detection of mental health issues and minimizing the impact through treatment by a mental health specialist can make a big difference in a person’s life and can lead to less relapse of the illness, when compared to using medication only. Employees who have a mental health issue can get the help they need and stay at work. If they need to go on short-term disability, they are able to return to work more quickly.”

In some instances, an employee suffering from a mental disability and consequently needing time off work will consult a personal injury lawyer. Depending on an employee’s situation at work, hiring a lawyer can help ensure fair treatment and entitled benefits. Calgary lawyer Peter Cline, a member of the Personal Injury Group at McLeod Law, says, “I have seen an increase in these claims over, say, the last five years in my short- and long-term disability insurance legal practice. This is true whether the employee’s mental health is the primary disabling condition or the secondary disabling condition to a primary ‘physical health’ condition.” Cline’s practice is focused on assisting ill and injured clients in recovering the compensation they are entitled to for the damages suffered in an accident, and disability insurance benefits owing to them because they are unable to work.

“I will say that if the mental health issues the employee is experiencing could be due to the workplace or the employee’s job, and the employee has Workers’ Compensation coverage, then it may be that a claim needs to be submitted to the WCB. An employer may benefit from legal advice on that point.”

Once a taboo topic, mental disability has become more widely accepted in the workplace as a legitimate reason for taking time off work. Employers have a responsibility to ensure the workplace is a safe environment for their employees, both physically and emotionally. Adequate training on mental health issues and how to address them in the workplace is recommended for all management and HR staff. Offering an Employee Family Assistance Program (EFAP) with free and confidential services is beneficial too.

Fraga says work culture plays a huge role in how an employee deals with mental health issues. “I believe the biggest challenge is culture. Employers need to have a culture that makes it safe and acceptable to discuss mental health in the workplace and provide on-site programs that foster that.”

Culver echoes Fraga’s comments and adds, “By building a culture where talking about mental health is encouraged, this in turn provides opportunities for companies to have open discussions about factors in the workplace that cause anxiety, stress and/or nervousness for employees.”

One big challenge, says Culver, is where to draw the line when it comes to employers’ responsibility for employees’ mental well-being. “Where does the employers’ responsibility stop and the employees’ responsibility for their mental health begin?”

With employees having the ability to say connected to work 24-7, Culver says everything seems to blend together. “Employees bring personal matters to work and work issues home. As a result, we’re seeing that employees are treating their supervisors and managers more like parental figures. This complicates the workplace dynamic significantly.”

There are, however, benefits to being connected to work 24-7. “It is important to provide work tools to help people stay connected. For example, with Manulife’s WorkSmart program, we provide all the tools so employees can have face-to-face meetings even when not physically in the same space,” says Fraga. “Manager support is also important as is encouraging regular team get-togethers.”

Fraga adds popular campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk and Manulife’s own benefit program have done a lot to reduce stigma and to encourage employees to seek help.

Since the implementation of Manulife’s mental health benefit, Fraga claims the company has seen positive results concerning the mental health of its employees. “We encourage other organizations to increase mental health benefits for their employees, either through health benefits or by implementing a workplace mental health and wellness program like the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.”

Fraga says Manulife regularly monitors the number and percentage of mental health-related issues presenting in disabilities, medical claims and EFAP usage. This data is then used to influence the strategy of their programs, enhancing or changing their designs where necessary.

When it comes to managing mental disability claims, Cline says from a legal standpoint, HR/benefits personnel should assist the employee with the disability claim process – whether it is applying for short/long-term disability insurance benefits with an insurer, making a WCB claim, or both.

A recent article that appeared in the Canadian HR Reporter notes, “Employers should shift their mindset to focus on a concept of disability prevention rather than simply disability management. Adopting a two-pronged strategy around both prevention and support will need to be a part of any employer response.”

The topic of mental health in the workplace is challenging and Culver says communication is key. “Employers should always be attuned to what is going on in the work environment. If you see someone who appears to be struggling, talk to them. Whatever you do, this is not a one-and-done situation. Just because someone says they are ‘fine’ doesn’t mean you are off the hook. Pay attention to anyone who appears to be struggling and let them know that you are willing to talk.”