B.C. workers still at risk: mental health group

Association seeks $2b commitment to help employees during pandemic

After warning about employees’ mental health risk as they return to the workplace this fall, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is pushing parties in the B.C. election for a $2 billion commitment to invest in mental health services.

The CMHA’s B.C. division said it has asked the parties to commit to four actions that will “guarantee the mental health of British Columbia” that is “the foundation for [the province’s] recovery.”

Beyond the four-year, $2 billion request for programs targeting mental health, the group is asking for the creation of a cross-sector provincial task force, the installation of an independent mental health advocate and a focus on vulnerable demographics including people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, the elderly and low-income communities.

Jonny Morris, CEO of CMHA’s B.C. division, has said that the workplace is another place that needs a “doubling down” of mental health efforts – given the issue’s importance in creating momentum for an economic rebound.

The CMHA has seen an increase – in some cases a doubling – in demand for its mental health services during the pandemic, Morris said. An organization survey conducted with the University of British Columbia found that almost 40% of Canadians feel their mental health has deteriorated since March. Researchers also found a substantial link between unemployment and suicide and deaths related to substance abuse, with a 1% rise in the former tied to a 2.8% spike in the latter.

That’s why a $2 billion investment is so crucial, Morris said.

“Now more than ever before, B.C.’s next government will need to prioritize mental health and well-being alongside economic recovery, with an understanding that neither can be achieved if the other is left behind,” he said in a statement.

CMHA’s pitch came as the world recognized Mental Health Day on October 10, and the Conference Board of Canada declared that the recognition of the day is more important than ever as “Canadians and people around the world are facing new or more mental health challenges in 2020 due to COVID-19.”

The conference board is set to host its 24th Better Workplace Virtual Conference October 26–30, and while the meeting will focus as always on culture, employee engagement, innovation and leadership in the workplace environment, this year’s event will also stress the mental-health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the entire working populace.

“The COVID-19 global pandemic has ignited change, uncertainty, and opportunities in unprecedented ways,” said the board’s statement introducing the conference. “As you think about the future of work, how is your organization activating a better workplace?”

Last May, the conference board’s Mental Health and Returning to the Workplace report showed that remote work led to increased cases of post-traumatic stress symptoms, frustration, boredom, financial loss and stigma. The study also suggested that the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism grew by as much as 25% among certain demographics as a result of social distancing or self-isolation measures.

Bill Howatt, the Conference Board’s chief of research for workforce productivity, said in the report that it is crucial for businesses to evaluate what’s being done to support employees’ psychological health and to encourage formal peer support at the workplace. Employers are also asked to take an inventory of programs to support mental health and wellness – and to keep monitoring the situation.

As people head back to the office at a time when many families with children face back-to-school challenges and the threat of a second COVID wave emerges, officials are also urging companies to be aware of a concurrent second wave of mental health issues.

CMHA’s Morris agreed, adding that vigilant monitoring is crucial given the indefinite nature of the pandemic and its effects.

“As we move into the fall with the COVID numbers again increasing and, of course, the return to school and offices, I think many workers are continuing to grapple with stresses not only with worrying about the virus, but also about working in many new ways,” he said. “The sense of how long this will go on for is a normal and typical concern among folks who are continuing to adapt.”