Donna Carbell
Head of Group Benefits, Manulife Canada

Online seems to be where we spend most of our time these days. Many of us go to work online, meet friends online, kids go to school online – not to mention online weddings and large gatherings – this Fall we had my Dad’s 80th b-day virtually.  In addition, online healthcare has become both a necessity and opportunity, and access to mental health services is an ever-increasing priority.

During the early days of the pandemic, and even still as we enter the second wave,  we have seen a lot of changes to our healthcare system; appointments and treatments are cancelled or delayed, and at the same time a noticeable uptick in the number of Canadians seeking mental health support. There can be debilitating effects of many mental illnesses that can leave people feeling anxious, unwell, or simply without the inclination to venture out during a pandemic.

These compounding scenarios create a situation that reduces both the inclination to seek help and the availability of mental health resources at a time when they’re needed most.

To me, the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” always rang true. And in this case necessity meant a surge in requests for online mental health support – something Manulife had been exploring in a pilot study two years prior. The results of that pilot study gave us some clear insights into how Digital Therapy would come into play after the onset of the pandemic.

...easy, immediate and early access to mental health professionals from the comfort of home...

The Value of Online Early Intervention

While initially developed as a response to fill the growing needs of people to have access to their treatment provider at the outset of the pandemic, online resources are proving to have a deeper and more comprehensive value. They facilitate easy, immediate and early access to mental health professionals from the comfort of home and have further opened the door to people who may not have sought this kind of support before.

Let me give you a hypothetical example. Imagine you’re someone who has generally had good mental health their whole life. You might think, there’s never been a reason to talk to a professional before – that’s reserved for people who really need it. But the pandemic happens and all of a sudden, you’re experiencing anxiety, isolation and depression experienced by many Canadians. Maybe you don’t feel it’s that severe, but you did hear about online support being offered. Now, instead of perhaps ignoring your symptoms, or avoiding the long trip to an office, or time spent in a waiting room, you simply sign up, and log on. This of course extends to people who are accessing support for the first time or have a previously diagnosed mental illness, you are now able to access the care you need online.

The simple scenario I’ve outlined above is an example of how an  online-first approach to mental health support can facilitate early intervention. There are fewer barriers to entry and the digital format is comfortable and familiar. This means people can get the help they need when they need it, and early intervention can be extremely important in determining health outcomes.

...our group that used Digital Therapy shortened the duration of their disability leave by 17% compared to the control group.

Early Intervention Helps People Return to Work

Over the past two years we ran a pilot study with Beacon® to evaluate the effectiveness of Therapist Assisted Digital Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and studied the outcomes achieved by employees on disability who received timely intervention. The results strongly support the idea that, when it comes to mental health support, the earlier you receive help, the more likely you are to experience positive results.

While we didn’t know a global pandemic was going to come around and drive the rate of digital therapy adoption so quickly, our results spoke to how valuable a resource it would become.

The ability to return to work after dealing with mental health challenges is only one measure of success. There are many ways people cope and heal. But if Digital Therapy is effective, employees can receive the necessary treatment allowing them to return to work sooner. And the numbers showed that early intervention was a key to this success.

A 17% Reduction in Absence Duration

The overall results were very positive – the group that used Digital Therapy shortened the duration of their leave by 17%, compared to the control group. This is an outstanding outcome, as even a small decrease would have been a significant improvement for employees looking to get back to work.

In addition, the efficacy of Digital Therapy was further supported as our data illustrated a small decrease in employees transitioning to Long Term Disability (LTD)  which suggests early access to online mental health resources can in fact lower transition rates to LTD and lead to fewer relapses.

The Most Compelling Case

Finally, and what I think is the most compelling of the data collected, is the evidence of just how powerful early intervention itself is. When we intervened within 6 weeks of the absence, we saw a 37% reduction in absence durations compared to when we intervened beyond 6 weeks.

Participants in the study also noted just how effective digital therapy was. Here’s a quote shared from someone who received therapy through Beacon®:

“I love this platform. It allows me to log on anytime; complete modules and go back to review concepts at any time and not limited to appointment times or visits with a therapist. The modules are simple and straightforward.”

It’s encouraging to hear that people are still receiving effective support – something the results of our study suggested they would – at a time where we have to change traditional approaches.

Online is Here to Stay, and is Worth Embracing

I’ll be honest – the paradigm shift to doing everything online is far from comfortable. One day it was business as usual, and the next day face-to-face human contact was a rare luxury.  However, we began this pilot two years ago, in anticipation of broadly leveraging the value Digital Therapy can provide, in particular, in Canada where access to care in remote regions is a challenge. Now, in our largely online world, there are signs that this shift has created some positive changes, that can last beyond the pandemic.

Digital mental health solutions are now widely available. With fewer barriers to access, and the ability to receive early intervention, digital solutions like Beacon have demonstrated their value by helping people return to work early from an absence. And we know people feel empowered when they can return to work. For many, work is an important part of identity and contributes to wellbeing. We hope that with the right intervention, people will be able to stay at work, or return to work when they’re ready.

It looks like our online world is here to stay for a while. I’m confident that as other innovative solutions arise, there will be plenty worth embracing