The following first ran on October 25, 2021, in the Journal of Commerce.

The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) in B.C. is seeing a surge of uptake on its employee assistance program.

The group says the increase highlights the pressure the pandemic has put on businesses and their employees as well as the need to further reduce the stigma around mental health struggles.

ICBA has offered benefit plans since the 1970s and today, with more than 110,000 people on its plans, ICBA Benefit Services is among the largest providers in Western Canada.

Through the ICBA Benefit Services Employee Assistance Program (EAP), employees have 24/7 access to professional, confidential counselling and other practical services and information to help support their mental, physical, social and financial well-being.

After diving into some of its benefits data, the ICBA had these takeaways:

  • From 2020 to 2021, use of the EAP has shot up 47 per cent.
  • 100 per cent of employees accessing the program in 2021 did so for mental health issues.
  • 84 per cent of employees were accessing the program for the first time.
  • 55 per cent of employees using the program were men and 45 per cent were women.
  • According to a national survey done by the ICBA this July, 24.4 per cent of respondents say their mental wellness was worse than a year ago and 13.4 per cent said it was better.
  • That survey also showed nearly 30 per cent said their colleagues’ mental wellness was worse than last year and only 6.1 per cent said it had improved.
  • The top two drugs prescribed under the benefits programs were for mental health.

ICBA president Chris Gardner explained the pandemic took an already challenging sector and made it more challenging.

“When you look at construction work, it can be strenuous, there are often high-performance requirements, sometimes it’s high risk, it is done in remote areas. A lot that adds stressors and pressures to people,” said Gardner, noting the construction sector has a suicide risk seven times higher than the national average and more than half of workers who died from opiate usage were in the industry. “The numbers are sobering. We looked at this and said we have to get past the stigma. The stigma around mental health is significant. Often people are in denial, they feel isolated, like they have nowhere to turn. There are lots of stereotypes about people who struggle. Our focus has been to normalize the conversation and try to get past that stigma.”

Gardner explained studies show that cost continues to be a significant barrier for many people who need help with mental health and substance abuse.

Two-thirds of employees either don’t have access to employer support in this area, or don’t know if they do and aren’t sure what support is available.

Gardner said in response the ICBA plans to invest more into its recently launched Workplace Wellness Program.

The program was designed by ICBA and its team of wellness professionals to promote individual wellbeing in the construction workplace.

The program, free for ICBA members, features ongoing client support and self-paced online courses and other delivery tools.

Currently there are more than 3,000 construction professionals enrolled in program.

“It’s clear the data is showing mental wellness in the workplace is a pressing issue,” said Gardner. “If we are going to start moving the numbers down, we have to normalize the conversation around mental wellness and everybody who deals with the administration of benefits needs to have this info at their fingertips.”