COVID-19, Group Benefits Disability and You

April 7, 2022

For business owners, plan administrators, and sponsors

Where we were, where we are and where we’re going

It’s getting harder to remember, but there was a time before Covid. People went to work. Only some companies had work from home options. And “front-line workers” wasn’t an everyday term.

We’ve come a long way in these two years. But a look at the trends in disability claims shows there’s still a long way to go.

The great pivot of 2020

We all remember the day everything shut down. Companies scrambled as employees were forced to work from home. Companies with front line workers scrambled to develop policies to keep employees safe at work. 

This was more than just a pivot. It was a paradigm shift in how and where we work. Working from home was typically not an option for most. Traditionally, many employers believed they couldn’t adequately support employees if they couldn’t see them. Now, working from home is seen as a benefit and recruiting tool.

And when possible, employers have stepped up to help those who can’t work from home. They’ve staggered schedules, been more flexible with breaks and increased accommodations within the workplace.

Despite these efforts, the pandemic has taken a toll. Employees at all levels are tired. And frontline workers have carried a tremendous load.

A new study from the Angus Reid Institute finds Canadians are largely fatigued, frustrated, and anxious – and one-in-three (36%) Canadians say they are struggling with their mental health.1

Manulife’s claims experience supports this finding. “Mental health claims made up well over 30% of Manulife’s group disability claims in 2021,” says Dr. Georgia Pomaki, Manulife’s Director of Mental Health Best Practices; Disability & Life.2

While that’s the largest segment of claims, the trends in mental health claims have changed during the pandemic. Depression claims are down, but anxiety claims are up. And the patterns indicate that we can expect to see a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) claims in the future.2

“We know a lot of people working in health care and other frontline industries are really stressed and feeling burned out.” says Dr. Pomaki.

Another trend is which groups are seeing the biggest impacts on mental health, with women, younger adults and parents of younger children reporting struggling the most.3 The good news, says Dr. Pomaki, is that with a greater focus on mental health and a willingness in younger groups to talk about it, employers can offer mental health resources and accommodations that target these specific groups.

Creating an environment of certainty

If we’ve learned nothing else in the last two years, Dr. Pomaki would like it to be this: mental health is just health. Physical health and mental health are equal. And to avoid absenteeism – and presenteeism – employers need to think about the connection between mental and physical health holistically.

Michelle Harper, Director, National Disability Best Practices, Group Life & Disability, agrees.

“In the past, keeping people at work focused mostly on physical health. Now we’re seeing mental health and physical health as one and the same,” says Michelle. “It’s a cycle. Organizations need to accommodate both physical and mental health or the cycle won’t end.”

And that matters as we move forward. Some employees and employers want to go back to business as usual. Others, not so much.

In fact, according to a survey from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), nearly 30 per cent of Canadians (28.8 per cent) are reporting moderate to severe anxiety about returning to pre-pandemic routines. This was highest among people aged 18 to 39 (38.4 per cent) and those with children under 18 living at home (35.7 per cent).1

Dr. Pomaki’s advice? “Don’t rush back to business as usual. There’s still a lot of uncertainty. With mental health and the pandemic so closely tied, employers need to say ‘we’ve got your best interest at heart. We’re here to help create an environment of certainty.’”

The key, she says, is for organizations to create a culture of trust and connection; a place where people feel comfortable interacting with each other and where they feel like others care about them. Forging these types of connections can help keep employees feeling supported, secure, and, ultimately, engaged.

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