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Nigel Branker discusses the impacts of mental health on your business

President, Health & Productivity Solutions & Executive VP at Morneau Shepell

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Nigel Branker is President, Health and Productivity Solutions and Executive Vice President, Morneau Shepell. Nigel and his team focus on developing and implementing solutions that help deliver measurable health outcomes for employees, resulting in increased workplace productivity for organizations. With a passion for helping people when they are most vulnerable and ensuring employee experience drives employer programs, Nigel believes in providing meaningful support at all stages of an individual’s health journey: from healthy to pre-disability to return to work. Nigel is a thought leader in helping organizations build strong business cases for investing in workplace mental health, and developing strategies that encompass both traditional and innovative solutions. Nigel joined the organization in 2012 and was previously Senior Vice President, Pension Consulting and Health and Benefits Consulting for Ontario. Prior to joining Morneau Shepell, Nigel held a number of senior roles in global consulting firms. He holds an Honours BSc in Actuarial Science and Mathematics from the University of Western Ontario and is a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries and a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries.


Many small businesses have been struggling due to the impact that COVID-19 has had on their businesses. What would you say is the biggest impact that the pandemic has had on the mental health of small business owners?

For many Canadians, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought increasing levels of stress and anxiety. Businesses of all sizes have been impacted by the global health crisis, but for small business owners – particularly those who own non-essential businesses and brick-and-mortar stores –Canada’s state of emergency and physical distancing restrictions have forced them to close their businesses for several months, and in some cases, permanently.

Anxieties that small business owners have experienced have been amplified by financial stress brought on by diminishing business, as well as tough decisions they’ve been faced with during the past few months, including reducing their personnel, closing brick-and-mortar locations and/or transitioning their business to a 100 per cent online model in some cases.

As well, small business owners are worried about their employees and how they will be affected by reduced finances. On one hand, employers are concerned about the health and safety of employees and the potential exposure to the virus by keeping doors open, while on the other hand, employers are concerned about the impact on employees’ finances if they close or halt operations. 

All of these factors, coupled with the mid- and long-term impact on provincial and federal economies, have taken a toll on business owners’ mental health. In fact, our latest Mental Health Index™ report found a consistent negative mental health score in the country for the fourth consecutive month between April and July, in part led by young small business owners and entrepreneurs who saw their income impacted by COVID-19. Our July report found that those reporting a reduced salary when compared to the previous month had the lowest mental health score (-19.1), while those who were employed fewer hours (-16.2) and those who were not currently employed (-16.0) also reported low scores. We also found that younger respondents continue to experience a greater increase in mental stress when compared to older respondents. 


What impact do you believe mental health issues can have on the success of a business?

Mental health issues have a direct impact on employers and businesses, including decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and an increase in costs to deal with the situation in some cases. All forms of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues also impact employee morale, ultimately impacting the overall business operation.

Prior the pandemic, a study conducted by consulting firm Deloitte, in which Morneau Shepell participated, revealed that the business costs of poor mental health in the workplace were staggering, with 30 of every 1,000 Canadian employees missing work for mental health reasons each week – demonstrating a strong need for employer intervention even before COVID-19 became a significant risk. In total, the loss of productivity at work due to mental illness-related absenteeism and presenteeism (working while unwell) added up to CA$6.3 billion annually across Canada prior to COVID-19. More recently, our Mental Health Index™ found that productivity decreased 11.0 points in July when compared to June 2020.


Morneau Shepell recently launched a new behavioural therapy program called AbilitiCBT. What can you tell us about this new program and how it can benefit Canadian entrepreneurs who are suffering from mental health issues due to the global pandemic?

Morneau Shepell’s internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) program, AbilitiCBT, addresses the uniquely challenging aspects of the pandemic – including uncertainty, isolation, caring for others, information overload and stress management, as well as general anxiety, depression, stress and insomnia, as well as pain management. The program is designed to help individuals that are struggling with mental health concerns to help change the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are causing problems by working directly with a registered therapist. 

All Canadians, including entrepreneurs, can benefit from the platform’s personalized professional therapy. During the therapy, a registered professional therapist guides patients/users through a series of modules designed according to each patient/user needs and personal goals. From advice on how to have difficult conversations with employees to how to navigate through uncertainty due to loss of income or financial instability, AbilitiCBT helps business owners cope with a wide variety of mental health issues resulting from the pandemic.

AbilitiCBT also offers self-guided learning and resources to navigate stressful situations brought on by health, work, life and finances, and as part of the government’s efforts to support Ontarians and Manitobans during the pandemic, is being offered at no cost to residents over the age of 16 in these provinces.


Morneau Shepell is able to provide AbilitiCBT for free in Ontario and Manitoba due to successful partnerships with local governments. What marketing strategy was used in order to gain this partnership?

Our experience with other wide-scale crises and traumatic events has demonstrated that the impact of such events has a long-lasting impact on the mental health of Canadians and one much longer than the event itself. Prior the pandemic, mental health was already an increasing topic of conversation and concern for Canadian organizations, institutions and governments, who understood the importance of removing barriers and making it easier for those struggling to get the help they need. 

Our partnership with the Ontario and Manitoba governments has been groundbreaking in providing accessible and reliable support for those in need, during and beyond COVID-19. Beyond providing the service alone, our goal is to educate Canadians on the importance of seeking help to improve their overall wellbeing and to position mental health support as something that is normal, encouraged and widely accepted. 

We look forward to continuing working with our partners across the country to identify the various tools needed to support Canadians during this time.


The federal government has implemented many programs and resources to help businesses that have been impacted by COVID-19. While most resources include financial aid and safety measures, providing programs that are focused on the mental health of entrepreneurs and their employees is also an important aspect. What programs and resources are currently available to small business owners that support their mental health?

Across the country, many organizations and governments have come together to show their support for Canadians, across physical, mental, social and financial health. Many entities care and it’s great to see the widespread support of Canadians’ wellbeing. 

At Morneau Shepell specifically, in addition to the support we offer through AbilitiCBT, we recently launched WellCan, a mobile app and online platform that offers free resources to help develop coping strategies and build resilience to deal with uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with these solutions, Morneau Shepell continues to offer its employee and family assistance program (EFAP) and workplace learning solutions to all Canadians during the global health crisis.

As well, governments are offering a wide variety of tools to support Canadians’ mental health, including workbooks and coaching in various languages, videos with helpful tips, personalized attention from mental health counsellors, and much more. 

Canadians can find more about the tools available to support their mental health here: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection/mental-health.html


As President of Health and Productivity Solutions at Morneau Shepell, what are some of the strategies you use when it comes to developing and implementing solutions that can benefit business owners and their employees?

At Morneau Shepell, our main priority when working with clients is understanding the impact of mental health on their people and their business. We understand mental health plays a significant role in the success of any organization, as regardless of an organization’s size or sector, happy and healthy employees are key drivers to success. Without addressing mental health, issues can range anywhere from lost productivity to long-term disability claims. 

We work very closely with our partners to ensure we are offering solutions, experts and tools best suited to their business and team’s specific needs, by first understanding how they can better support their employees’ life, wellbeing and mental health. While AbilitiCBT is a great resource for individuals looking for mental health support, we also offer a full suite of wellbeing support to current and prospective clients to take care of them, their people and their business. These include on-demand support solutions, EFAPs and workplace learning solutions, among others. 


On a final note, what impact did COVID-19 have on Morneau Shepell when it was time to develop new solutions that was beneficial for Canadian businesses?

Morneau Shepell has significant experience dealing with wide-scale crises. Our business continuity plan is strong and is being effectively deployed. 

When the pandemic reached Canada in early 2020, our operations continued without disruption, across all our core services, including counselling and other EFAP services, trauma support, cognitive behavioural therapy, e-learning and webinars, absence and disability management, administrative services and retirement consulting services. At that time, Morneau Shepell’s lines of business came together to work on a plan to better serve Canadians throughout the health crisis, including an extensive assessment of our full suite of services and how they would support Canadians’ mental health during uncertain times. 

As we continue to listen to our clients and their changing needs, one thing that we quickly realized, and see even more prominently today, is that digital support is here to stay. Employers are now faced with new realities and employee needs that they need to accommodate, including more flexible work-from-home policies and accommodation on time off. We continue to listen to these concerns from each client and assess the types of support needed on an ongoing basis.

Additionally, there is no surprise that the role of digital tools has gotten stronger during the global health crisis. One of the solutions that were specifically tailored to support the anxiety related to the pandemic was AbilitiCBT. In March, we announced the program would be expanded to address anxiety symptoms related to the uniquely challenging aspects of pandemics, as we identified Canadians were facing uncertainty as a result of COVID-19 and may have been dealing with challenging situations that could impact their wellbeing (physical, mental, social and financial health). The platform continues to support individuals most affected by COVID-19, including healthcare providers and frontline workers, as well as parents and teachers who are faced with uncertainties brought on by children’s return to the classroom.  

For more information about AbilitiCBT, visit myicbt.com.

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