With employees often struggling to find benefits offerings related to mental-health support or chronic conditions, demand for health-care system navigation services has increased significantly in the past few years.

In May 2023, the Bank of Montreal launched a digital mental-health navigation guide, available to employees in both Canada and the U.S., that streamlines access to much-needed supports and resources in both the private and public health-care systems.

“We recognize when it comes to finding benefits information or wellness resources, it can be a bit complicated,” says Sarika Gundu, director of Canadian health and welfare benefits at BMO. “It was important for us to show our commitment by ensuring employees know where to go and how to find available resources.”

Read: How BMO’s navigation guides are supporting employee well-being

A September 2022 survey conducted by BMO found only 19 per cent of North American workers strongly agreed they felt well and whole. Just a quarter (24 per cent) of respondents were likely to turn to professional support and only four per cent said they rely on their employer for support.

“These results told us two things,” she says. “One, as an employer we have an opportunity and responsibility to help our employees be their best mentally, physically, socially and financially and, two, we need to reaffirm our commitment to drive awareness, develop content and share resources to support colleagues on their wellness journey.”

Since introducing these navigation guides, Gundu says feedback has been very positive, with employees saying they value the guides and appreciate knowing BMO is looking out for them.

Navigation guides by the numbers

• 41% — the percentage of caregivers of ageing parents or other family members who were interested in navigation support

33% — the percentage of plan sponsors that said they already cover services for health-care navigation. Another 33% said they were interested in doing so

28% — the percentage of plan members who, when presented with a list of new or lesser-known benefits, indicated they or their family would use a health-care system navigation service

• The percentage of plan members choosing navigation has climbed steadily, from 15% in 2021 to 24% in 2022

• The desire for navigation support increased among members with a recent major injury (38%) or illness (40%)

Source: 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey

“We know because of the pandemic people’s mental health has become more exasperated, so we want to make sure our resources are readily available and easily accessible. We want employees to know exactly where to go, especially when they’re experiencing a challenging situation. I think we can all relate; if we’re [feeling stressed], trying to Google where to find support can be tough.”

Specific resources and support programs are often hard for employees to find and, when they’re needed, employees aren’t necessarily in the right mindset to be navigating, says Matthew Pavelich, senior principal at Normandin Beaudry.

“From an employee perspective, in the moment they don’t care if they have an employee assistance program or group benefits, they care that they’re having trouble sleeping or their marriage is breaking down. It can be overwhelming. Navigation guides are a win-win if an employer communicates with employees and curates information according to their needs.”

Read: 38% of plan members experienced a high level of stress over past 3 months: survey

Indeed, it’s clear that employees are often confused about how to find the proper health-care resources, says Paula Allen, global leader of research and client insights at Telus Health. “When [they] look at what’s available from [their employer], very often employers have wonderful services, but employees don’t know about all of them if the information isn’t right there in front of them. The whole idea of a navigation guide is a great form of support, but the way to approach it is to really think of the audience.”

Employers can’t just use old-style benefits booklets filled with an overwhelming amount of information, she adds, noting those didn’t exactly work well in the past. Instead, she recommends employers think about the individual and their situation, clarify the next steps and ensure the language is culturally appropriate for large groups.

British Columbia is an especially diverse province where health and well-being are deeply personal, says Nadeem Rajabali, senior vice-president and chief sales officer at Pacific Blue Cross, noting employers in the province have a strong commitment to respecting employee confidentiality.

“Employers may not always be aware of every aspect of their employees’ lives or the impact of personal circumstances on their engagement or absence from work. This is why communication, navigation and service from benefits providers need to be diverse, inclusive and equitable. We’ve seen firsthand how this approach can play a key role in breaking down barriers and addressing the varying needs of all employees.”

Barriers to health-care navigation

While it’s important for employers to help with navigation for all employees, the ‘sandwich generation’ requires the most help because they’re looking after elderly parents as well as their children, says George Wang, vice-president of benefits consulting services at BFL Canada.

“The current Canadian health-care environment is difficult to navigate in terms of finding extra support. The employer should focus on the sandwich generation because this might be the largest cohort of their workforce. These are middle management or upper management workers and extended caregiving can affect their productivity and mental health.”

Read: Half of plan members say coverage of certain benefits limits their ability to seek treatment: survey

Health-care navigation has also become increasingly difficult for the millions of Canadians who don’t have access to a family doctor.

A snapshot of wellness in North America

69% — the percentage of North American workers who believe mental wellness is a top priority

65% — the percentage of North American workers who believe the inclusion of wellness benefits carries some importance when choosing a potential employer

4% — the percentage of North American employees who said they rely on their employer for wellness support

• The top factors preventing North Americans from prioritizing their wellness are stress (67%), money (65%), motivation (64%) and a lack of resources (54%).

Source: 2022 BMO wellness survey

“The guidance used to be to ‘See your family doctor for any issue, big or small,’ because they were the first point of contact,” notes Allen. “That doesn’t work when [millions of] Canadians don’t have family doctors. Also, the strain on family doctors is tremendous right now and they’re not going to be able to guide people to the resources that are available inside an organization.”

One of the reasons that organizations have employee benefits is to prevent or treat minor health-care issues that don’t necessarily require a hospital visit, she adds, noting with the ageing population and fewer people going into family medicine, these guides are going to be much more important.

Finding a family doctor and navigating the health-care system is especially challenging for employees in remote and northern areas, says Pavelich. “[Virtual health-care platforms] are far more important for these employees. The pandemic helped all of us become more comfortable with online health care, but for people in remote areas it makes all the difference, especially with helping them navigate resources. I’ve heard from clients it’s become particularly important in northern Ontario, northern Quebec and Indigenous communities.”

Wang believes the Canadian health-care system itself is making navigation difficult because it’s still fairly fragmented. “Only recently did the Canadian government create the national dental-care program. Some provinces have a pharmacare program, but not every province does. Now the federal government is trying to put a national pharma-care program in place as well. You have multiple layers of coverage and sometimes they cover the same thing, but to different degrees. Our system has definitely evolved over the last 30 years, but not in a systematic way.”

Read: Dental-care program’s employer reporting requirement may cause barriers to care: experts

Some employers don’t have the band-width or expertise to help employees navigate the health-care system, he notes, adding the service could be outsourced in those cases. “There are many providers out there offering virtual care [as a one-stop shop]. The insurance companies are directly involved with the health-care system and they likely know how to navigate the system better than employers.”

How employers can make navigation easier

The first thing that employers tend to think about when considering navigation assistance is a written guide, says Allen, noting it’s helpful as long as they include behaviour change principles and don’t treat the guide as a data dump.

However, interactive online guides are better because people can navigate them more quickly and they can include engaging elements such as video testimonials. “Because it’s not just about telling people what they have, it’s also about motivating them to take the steps. We often think everybody is motivated to take the right steps for their health, but as human beings, we tend to be motivated in the moment and then we get distracted.”

Indeed, it’s important for employers to encourage employees to engage with their benefits plan to keep them motivated, says Rajabali, noting as health challenges can be daunting, having a clear understanding of the plan can provide reassurance during a trying time.

“The easiest way to navigate benefits and receive important information is by signing up for digital tools . . . and mobile apps. Not only can plan members easily access information, review coverage and submit claims, they can even purchase additional coverage. Most tools also provide a digital navigation feature that helps members find a range of providers located near them that may even offer direct billing to the benefits plan.”

Read: Medavie Blue Cross, Medical Confidence launching health-care navigation system for employees on disability

Employers can make navigation easier for employees by keeping it simple and truly thinking about the employee and their needs, says Gundu.

Key Takeaways

• When employees are dealing with a physical or mental-health issue, they aren’t in the right mindset to be navigating the health-care system on their own.

• The shortage of family doctors and Canada’s complicated health-care system are significant barriers to proper health-care navigation.

• Employers can make navigation easier for employees by adding more virtual tools, creating one-stop shops and providing engaging experiences.

“It was important for my team to consider what we wanted employees to do differently after reading the guide. We brainstormed how to design something with the employee in mind and [we thought about what] we would want and what some of the barriers are at the bank. BMO is all about being digital, so we wanted to make sure our guide was digital and easy to navigate.”

Recognizing employees don’t have a lot of spare time, BMO created short videos that highlight key points related to the benefits program in an engaging way. These videos got a lot of traction because people were able to watch them whenever they had time, she says, noting they’ve become part of an ongoing series.

The bank also holds benefits webinars and sends out a quarterly benefits newsletter with different themes. “Our last one discussed ‘springing into action’ and [how to tackle spring allergies]. Instead of going to the doctor or pushing it off, they have what they need at their fingertips. We’ve heard great feedback about how catchy some of our newsletters are to get people thinking.”

Read: Lululemon’s use of video, social media in benefits communications results in award win

As BMO’s benefits team gets specific requests, such as highlighting details of the parental leave process, it has partnered with the bank’s employee resource groups to highlight its offerings and simplify the information.

It’s important for resources like navigation guides to evolve over time, says Gundu. “Resources will change, websites and information will change, so it’s important for us to monitor and update the guide accordingly. And whenever we’ve done updates, we took the opportunity to share that out loud. It’s another opportunity to [promote the guide as well as the resources]. BMO also has a wellness hub and we put the navigation guide in the hub [so it’s like a one-stop shop].”

These platforms don’t have to be complicated, says Pavelich, adding it can be as simple as a website or a clickable PDF file.

Indeed, Gundu agrees setting up navigation guides doesn’t have to be an expensive process. “It’s important for employers to know these guides are a low-cost, high-value opportunity. It didn’t take a lot of money; it was just a matter of thinking about the challenges our employees might be facing and what we could do to make information easily accessible.”

Sadie Janes is an associate editor at Benefits Canada and the Canadian Investment Review.