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Connecting the dots on chronic disease and mental illness

Posted by Medavie Blue Cross on May 03, 2021

The connection between a healthy mind and body is clear, just as a healthy business is fundamentally linked to a healthy workforce.

Lesser known, but scientifically supported, is the link between mental health and chronic physical conditions. Those living with long-term physical health problems are twice as likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population. Conversely, people living with a serious mental illness are at higher risk of experiencing a wide range of physical health issues — three times greater for Canadians with depression.

Co-existing mental and physical health challenges can lead to longer illness duration, poor health outcomes and diminished quality of life. Then there’s the economic costs, from increased use of our health care system to lost productivity in the workplace.

Holistic Approach

These links underscore the importance of developing a holistic approach to employee health and wellness.

The timing is critical given how the anxiety and stress levels of Canadians are reaching all-time highs due to the effects of COVID-19 on their lives while chronic conditions, the largest driver of health plan spending, can go untreated due to ongoing demands and restrictions on our health system.

Mental Health Decline

Since the pandemic began, studies have revealed the decline of Canadians’ mental health. Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index’s monthly report for March showed a negative mental health score for the 12th consecutive month, indicating Canadians’ view of their overall mental health had dropped to its lowest point. Yet, only 1 in 5 (18%) employers have since raised the maximums for their psychological service benefits, according to a Conference Board of Canada survey.

Actionable Insights

Employers can take action on these and other survey insights. Small efforts like making well-being part of everyday conversation at work, picking up the phone to ask how someone is doing or pointing to available health resources can make a big difference.

Top 3 Supports

A survey of 1,600 employed adults listed their top three supports:

  1. Mental health-specific resources, such as available tools and services (32%).
  2. Flexible work arrangements, such as working from home or during different times (31%).
  3. Frequent communication and check-ins, including video conferencing, emails and other electronic social supports (23%).

Nearly 9 in 10 (86%) of workers said things like social check-ins, flexible work arrangements and access to mental health resources are more helpful than financial support. Only 1 in 10 (9%) indicate things like bonuses and pay raises helped support their mental health.

Prevention Measures

The following are other effective and cost-effective ways employers can proactively keep mental health issues from escalating to the disability stage and, at the time, help to prevent or manage chronic health conditions like diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

Cover health coaching – Given that 2 in 3 Canadians will develop a chronic disease in their lifetime, and the relationship between physical and mental health, employers would be wise to reimburse employees for services of a health coach to help them gain the knowledge — and the confidence — to take charge of a chronic health condition.

  • Our Managing Chronic Disease benefit, a first for Canada, covers on-on-one counselling and education services for employees with asthma, COPD, high cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes.

Evaluate your plan – Take a good look at your plan, supported by data analysis, to determine if it sufficiently meets the health and wellness needs of your employees. Are there risks or gaps where mental health and chronic disease is concerned? If so, it may be time to minimize those risks and fill in those gaps.

Educate and engage your employees – Make employee health and wellness a main focus of your workplace education and communication activities, from town halls to internal newsletters. Also, use your various internal channels, be it an intranet site or online forum, to regularly communicate the features and advantages of your benefits plan.

Consider your culture – Focus on developing a culture that positions your workplace as a positive, supportive environment. Returns on investment can include increased recruitment and retention. This is an important consideration given that health benefits can be deal makers — or breakers — in the fierce competition for new hires.

Focus on prevention – Take preventative measures to delay the onset of chronic diseases and build mental resilience through management training, wellness webinars, online yoga and meditation classes, healthy snack options and more.

Go digital – Consider an investment in virtual health care services, which enable Canadians to connect with medical professionals for diagnosis and treatment through a combination of video calls, instant messaging, and internet-connected medical devices.

  • Our Connected Care digital health storefront offers a comprehensive suite of services including internet-enabled Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (digital therapy), personalized medicine (pharmacogenetic testing), online doctors (virtual doctor visits, virtual physio (online rehabilitation) and most recently our new Diabetes Care Program, Accu-Chek + 360Care.

Leverage technology – Explore new technologies and innovations that can help employees navigate the health care system and stay well. This can be as simple reimbursing employees for the purchase of the wearable device like a Fitbit.

Mobile apps are another high return on low investment that can help employees lower risk factors and take their drugs as described.

  • Our own data shows that 12 months after diagnosis, only 72% of claimants with diabetes are drug adherent. Our mobile app has the built-in functionality to help those claimants manage their medication. In addition, metabolic sensors can detect when an employee may be at-risk of developing diabetes and nudge employee to take steps to prevent the onset of disease.

For more information on our health benefit offering, visit and speak to your account representative.

Keep exploring our tips and perspectives on trending health insurance and health care topics, including the top 7 ways to help employee protect their mental health.

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