Business

Online tools for mental health going mainstream at work

Online tools are becoming a widely accepted tactic to help employers who are concerned about the mental health of their workers provide more options to support the well-being of their staff.  

Online videos, therapy benefits, and new apps all being used

A worker watches a video on his phone from the Not Myself Today program of the Canadian Mental Health Association. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

Online tools for mental health are becoming increasingly mainstream as employers seek more options to support the well-being of their staff.  

In recent years experts say business leaders have shown an increasing interest in mental health issues and their impact on people and performance.

"I think there is broader, much broader recognition that this is an issue that corporate Canada needs to be paying attention to," said Jordan Friesen, the national director for workplace mental health at the Canadian Mental Health Association.  

Jordan Friesen of the CMHA says his organization's mental health program is increasingly popular with companies (CMHA)

While entrepreneurs have launched a number of online mental health tools for the corporate world, Friesen's view is also rooted in subscriptions for his charitable organization's workplace program, Not Myself Today.

"We've actually seen pretty remarkable growth curve for Not Myself Today, both in terms of companies that use the program as well as the growth we've seen in sustainable revenue as a charity," aid Friesen.

Companies that sign up for the program receive a combination of posters, fact sheets and conversation cards on mental health, as well as access to a series of mental videos online for workers and their families.

At a cost of four dollars per year per employee, more than 450 Canadian companies are enrolled in the program.

In addition, local CMHA offices can provide things like risk assessments, referrals, and experts to lead workshops, which the organization encourages each year as part of its Mental Health Week, May 6 to 12.

Marking Mental Health Week

One business marking mental health week is LifeSpeak,a wellness company that provides an online library for its clients' employees, including hundreds of videos featuring experts talking about a range of topics in health, family, financial and professional development. 

Danny Weill, vice-president of the 15-year-old Toronto based company, said "25 per cent of LifeSpeak's total content would be considered core mental health programming."

Danny Weill is with LifeSpeak, a Toronto company that has made hundreds of online wellness videos, including many on mental health. LifeSpeak is hosting a 'mental health marathon' for clients. (Karin Culliton/LifeSpeak)

This week its offering clients an online "mental health marathon." The two-day event has psychologists hosting back-to-back 90-minute question-and-answer sessions, taking live questions on things like anxiety, mood disorders and supporting someone living with mental illness.

LifeSpeak has 550 clients representing seven million workers across North America, ranging from Bell Canada to the Royal Canadian Mint to Save on Foods. Weill says mental health topics always score among their clients' most-watched videos.     

Like all of LifeSpeak's content, the marathon can be accessed by employees anonymously through a computer or handheld device.

Kimberly Allen of Ernst and Young Canada says 45 per cent of the company's employees are under age 30 and interested in online resources for everything, including mental health. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

Ernst and Young Canada uses LifeSpeak. Kimberly Allen is in charge of benefits at the company and said she is excited about the marathon.

In addition to confidentiality, she said convenience is another big factor in making sure employees can get help: "45 per cent of our employees are under age 30, and they are interested in doing things efficiently and using technology as much as possible."

Getting help and gamification

A recent trend in mental health support is the creation of mental health apps.   

American companies loom large in that mobile world. Talkspace claims to be the global leader in online therapy with a network of more than 3,000 therapists to help individual users and corporate client employees through online messaging.

A company called 7 Cups of Tea boasts of having helped more than 39 million people through its platform for individuals and businesses. On it users access help from "120,000 trained active listeners and therapists," try therapeutic exercises, or play games related to life challenges. Another newer app called Sibly offers 24/7 "mental wellness coaching" through text-style messaging.  

Given the costs associated with mental health issues, there's a financial dimension to helping people that is driving innovation.

Canadians companies are also planning to launch mental health apps, with one called Hugr scheduled for release late this year, and LifeSpeak to launch one even sooner.       

Weill said its app will have many of the engagement tools unique to the digital world, such as badges and other reward activities, but noted "there are no bells and whistles to replace an individual getting the appropriate support that they need."

Experts agree the "gamification" of mental health does pose potential concerns.  

Dr. Nik Grujich, a psychiatrist with Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto believes that in the absence of easily accessible therapy online tools and apps have a place in mental health. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

"I know that a lot of creative people are coming up with interesting tools," said Dr. Nik Grujich, a staff psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, and a featured expert in LifeSpeak videos. 

While Grujich said he broadly supports innovation in health care and psychiatry, he'd like to see clinical research on whether these new apps and games are effective.  

Nevertheless "in the absence of easily accessible therapy, I think all other tools are better than nothing."

Businesses backing traditional therapy  

Some businesses are backing traditional therapy to support their employees.

In January, Ernst and Young Canada announced a new benefit for its 6,000 employees and their dependents in the form of $5,000 in annual coverage for counselling or therapy. 

Allen says her company "really felt we needed to support our people by removing the financial barrier to accessing mental health services." Starbucks also covers its employees for $5,000 in therapy each year, while Manulife offers $10,000.

At the CMHA, Friesen says the investments in mental health make sense as the barriers between work and life become more blurry. "If companies firmly believe that it is the people within the organization that drive the success of their business, then there is a natural connection to wanting to make sure those people are as healthy as they can be, both physically and mentally."

One study even suggests companies that invest in the well-being of their workers demonstrate a higher market valuation than those that don't.

About the Author

James Dunne

Producer, CBC News Business

James Dunne researches, produces and writes stories for the business unit at CBC News. He has a decade of experience in business programming, including on the shows Venture and Fortune Hunters. An award-winning videojournalist, he's also worked on special projects and as the late lineup editor for the World at Six on CBC Radio One.