While mental health is often a sensitive area, the Co-operators Group Ltd. aimed to bring the issue into the open by introducing an online Yammer group as a safe place for employees to talk, share information and support one another.

“It’s a way for us to have those organic conversations crop up from our staff,” said Stacey Kennedy, program director of the mental-health efforts at the the company, during a roundtable involving plan sponsors and industry experts held as part of the Workplace Benefits Awards on Oct. 12.

“It’s completely driven by staff,” she added, noting the group’s membership numbers are growing on a weekly basis.

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The program was one of the many wellness and communications strategies discussed during the roundtable. In the case of Syncrude Canada Ltd., it confronted the issue of mental health when it faced an unusual situation during the Fort McMurray, Alta., wildfires in the spring of 2016. “Within days of the evacuation, with our teams being scattered across Alberta . . . we immediately started working with Morneau Shepell to develop a corporate strategy,” said Gladys Hokanson, area leader in health services at the oilsands company, during the roundtable.

Leaders received training in recognizing the signs of post-traumatic stress, and third-party counsellors were on-site continually, she said. “We also knew that it wasn’t going to end. Once everyone was back in the community, we couldn’t stop.”

The company then created a fitness-for-work checklist that managers could use in the field to help employees experiencing mental-health problems. As well, the company sent out strategic communications to employees at times that could be particularly painful, including the winter holidays and the one-year anniversary of the fire.

Ensuring employees are psychologically fit is especially important for workers at a nuclear power station where their decision-making abilities are critical. As such, Bruce Power’s strategy to maintain good mental health hinged on creating an atmosphere where employees felt they could be open about metal-health issues they might be experiencing, said Mike Murray, manager of human resources and employee wellness at the utility company, during the roundtable.

Read: CAA honoured for wellness programs that include remote workers

Words like suicide, depression and anxiety shouldn’t be taboo, he said. As the strategy progressed, employees began to feel more comfortable discussing mental-health issues and managers began to ask for more tools to better tackle them.

“We trained 700 managers on the basics of mental health in the workplace — not diagnosis, not treatment, not expecting them to know any of that — but knowing the signs and symptoms of when someone might not be themselves,” said Murray, noting that in providing feedback, some managers suggested it was the first time they’d ever received training to manage the human side of their staff.

While there’s some way to go, plan sponsors are making progress when it comes to mental health, said Paul Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell Ltd. “There’s been a tremendous amount of movement forward, still a lot to be done on things like stigma and when people are actually suffering, getting help,” she said during the roundtable.

Still, Allen stressed that risks associated with mental health will build up if they aren’t addressed proactively. As such, creating an environment that promotes mental health and well-being should be a part of a company’s standard approach to risk management.

On that same proactive front, Melinda Henderson, Royal Bank of Canada’s senior manager of wellness and financial education, said that every person within an organization has preventative steps he or she can take on their journey towards mental well-being. During the roundtable, she noted the bank has implemented programs that emphasized the connection between mental health and other areas of life, such as nutrition, exercise and finances, over the past year. “It’s really about getting people to think about well-being more holistically. So yes, there is no health without mental health; but in terms of prevention, it’s important to take care of the entire person,” she said.

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Jennifer Elia, assistant vice-president of health and wellness at Sun Life Financial, said it was gratifying to hear about companies integrating wellness into their overall business strategies. “It’s fundamental for the leaders at this table to be able to drive it forward,” she said.

“Love what I’m hearing about the social aspects and leveraging the digital to decrease that stigma that we’re all too familiar with,” she added.

Companies should also think about the precise objective of any program, she said.“What are we trying to achieve with all this? Be specific about that.”

On the pensions side, financial wellness was another issue that arose during the roundtable discussion. In its case, the Alberta Local Authorities Pension Plan recognized that some members don’t have the financial literacy to wrap their heads around their pensions without help, said Sheri Wright, vice-president of stakeholder relations and communications. “We believe that income adequacy in retirement is directly related to financial literacy, and, frankly, people don’t have it.” As such, the plan implemented a communications strategy that focused on clear and engaging language in order to break down the barriers many plan members faced in processing complex content.

Read: Employers, policy-makers urged to rethink future of work

For any program, it’s important not to lose sight of the initial motivation by focusing on statistics, said Stephanie Enright, director of talent management and administration at Lakeside Process Controls Ltd., during the discussion. “You have to be really careful not to over-measure your program.”

There are plenty of outcomes from a wellness program that are impossible to assess using data, she noted, citing an employee who bought a bike even though biking wasn’t part of the wellness program implemented at her company. While there were so many features of the program, the employee, who felt they didn’t include her, went out and found her own exercise opportunity in order to be part of the conversation, said Enright. “That’s a success factor, but there’s no metric out there that’s going to tell me that it checks the box that my program is successful.” Surveys and statistics are no substitute for leaving the office and talking to employees, she emphasized.

However, having statistics to back up the business case for a program can protect it from the chopping block when an organization is looking to cut costs, said Joy Sloane, a partner in the Toronto health and benefits consulting practice at Morneau Shepell. “You really need to be able to continually measure and monitor and also determine where your focus should be,” she said. “You can look at metrics to do that.”

A full list of the 2017 Workplace Benefits Awards’ winners is available here. BenefitsCanada.com will continue to feature more winners throughout the week.

 

Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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