Accounting | Sustainability

Can you measure the impact of mental health programs at work?

Two Canadian finance teams have taken on the challenge by implementing social and human capital accounting into their organizations to highlight how employees’ mental health is impacting their businesses

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Close up of the hands of a African american businessman in mudra position, relaxing and meditating at work desk in an office“Mental illnesses are on the rise,” says Pamela Steer, FCPA, FCA, former CFO of WSIB and a member of the Canadian A4S network. “To be an ambassador, we felt it was important to be a leader in the space of mental health.” (Shutterstock/fizkes)

To thrive in the 21st century, businesses know they need to address the impact of mental health in the workplace.

The mental-health challenges of working Canadian adults cost employers more than $6 billion in lost productivity due to absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover in 2011, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. [See Starting today, make mental health a priority in your workplace]

Programs that support employee mental health may seem like the way forward, but their benefits don’t show up on the traditional balance sheet and their impact is difficult to track and calculate. So how can businesses account for the social and human influence of such programs?

Using a guide published by the A4S CFO Leadership Network, A4S Essential Guide: Social and Human Capital Accounting, two members of the Canadian Chapter—the insurance company The Co-operators Group and the Ontario-based government agency the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB)—are attempting to help answer that question. Their finance teams have built worked examples that describe methods for calculating how mental health projects affect a company’s business impact in the long term.


At The Co-operators Group, an opportunity to build a business case for an existing mental-health strategy was appealing, said CPA Karen Higgins, CFO at The Co-operators Group and a member of the Canadian Chapter of the A4S CFO Leadership Network.

“We’re behind it because it’s the right thing to do for our employee base,” says Higgins. “Measurement is the gravy on top.”

The company’s mental health initiative, which started in 2016 included:

  • mental health education and support for employees
  • leadership training courses
  • an internally run social media site
  • a review of The Co-operators’ benefits program

The Co-operators’ worked example describes how the finance team, in partnership with human resources, analyzed annual costs and benefits related to a mental-health strategy. For example, they hypothesized a reduction in short- and long-term disability claims related to mental health. 

A mental health dashboard tracks the metrics. And while the project is still in early stages, short-term signs of improvement are already visible, including:

  • increased use of mental health resources by employees
  • increased coverage for mental health services in employee benefit packages
  • gold certification by Excellence Canada for workplace mental health

Though there hasn’t yet been a reduction of disability claims, Higgins notices the impact when she engages with employees. “I’ve talked to people who say ‘I’m so thankful that I work for an organization that supports mental health,’” she says. 

“We can’t say it has a benefit from a financial claims point of view. But in the long term, it will play out beneficially. There’s been an increased cost, but it’s supportive of the employee base, so there are less quantifiable benefits.”


WSIB, a government agency that administers compensation for people hurt on the job in Ontario, had deepened its mental-health strategy in 2017. 

“Mental illnesses are on the rise,” says Pamela Steer, FCPA, FCA, former CFO of WSIB and a member of the Canadian A4S network. “To be an ambassador, we felt it was important to be a leader in the space of mental health.”

Measures included: 

  • introducing a mental-health awareness program for all employees
  • training senior leaders on mental health in the workplace
  • training staff on resiliency and self-care
  • launching an intranet site about healthy workplaces
  • hosting a wellness fair 

The agency’s A4S worked example involved building a finance model that would measure whether the mental health initiative could improve business through fewer and shorter mental health disability claims, decreased absenteeism and recruiting costs, and increased engagement and retention.

WSIB’s finance team helped develop a tracking dashboard, which shows trends in mental health programs and allows decision makers to assess their impact. Short-term signs of success have already been realized: 

  • more employees have accessed mental health services
  • more employees have received financial incentives for fitness assessments
  • surveys show an increase of confidence in leaders’ management of mental health concerns
  • Excellence Canada awarded WSIB with a silver certification in 2017 for its mental health program 

“We have been successful so far in tearing down the stigma around mental health,” says Steer. “We’re creating a culture of openness and acceptance and tolerance. It’s okay to have issues and it’s okay to reach out for help.” [See Are you guilty of masking your emotions in the workplace?]

Employee engagement surveys have been positive since the project began. 

“We have people who are proud to work where they work, and the investment we’ve made in mental health is part of that,” says Leslie Morgan, executive director of human resources analytics and a member of the project team at WSIB.


Data points are still developing in both organizations, and the projects continue.

Steer foresees a five-year timeline and beyond for the kind of deep cultural change WSIB wants to see. And, as with the Co-operators, the WSIB pilot project is just the beginning of a long-term attempt to measure the impact of mental health programs on business. 

“We are prepared for an increase in costs, but what seems like a cost will result in higher productivity, higher engagement, lower absenteeism and lower turnover,” says Steer. “We are convinced we will see the returns over time.”


The Co-operators Group and WSIB are part of a series of worked examples being developed by the Canadian Chapter of the A4S CFO Leadership Network to focus on applying human and social capital accounting practices in business, which is based on the A4S Essential Guide: Social and Human Capital Accounting.