Nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic, leading Canadian employers are demonstrating their unwavering commitment to supporting their employees’ mental health.

In fact, Benefits Canada’s 2021 Workplace Benefits Awards’ mental-health category was so packed with standout entries that it was split into two categories based on company size. The four finalists and two winners have several key features in common: using data and employee feedback, support from senior leadership, the provision of mental-health training and virtual care and expanded mental-health offerings to combat the pandemic.

Pandemic response

The onset of the pandemic in March 2020 spurred many employers into action, particularly those with workers on the frontlines.

With the airline industry devastated by the pandemic, Air Canada was forced to lay off a significant number of employees, but among those who remained, there was a lot of anxiety and fear in those early days, says Jim Chung, the airline’s chief medical officer. “It was important to provide timely and accurate information as we had it and be a trusted resource of information for our employees, as well as providing them with resources, given that they are actually going to work and they’re front-facing as essential workers.”

Read: Who are the winners of the 2021 Workplace Benefits Awards?

LifeLabs’ frontline workers were engaged in pandemic-related issues before the crisis was officially declared, with those in patient service centres asking people about health and travel in the early weeks of 2020, says Trin Pettingill, the company’s national director of total rewards, human resources operations and technology. “So they’ve been on the frontlines of this for going on two years, which does dovetail nicely with some of the changes we’ve made.”

LifeLabs’ changes included adding a coronavirus resources page to its wellness portal and taking a creative approach to promoting its offerings. CSA Group highlighted its well-being platform and its employee assistance program when 90 per cent of its workforce began working at home in March 2020.

By the numbers

51% of Canadian benefits plan sponsors intend to focus on investments in emotional or mental health over the next three years;

48% of respondents offer a training program for managers or employees to help them recognize and respond to signs of mental-health concerns; and

19% recently increased their maximum coverage level for mental-health counselling services.

Source: The 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey

“We started our journey on mental health in late 2019, pre-pandemic. We had literally just finished the [request for proposal] . . . in February 2020, before the shutdown,” says Melodie Mason, the organization’s vice-president of total rewards, noting the planned June 1 launch went ahead.

In 2020, 3M Canada also focused its communications and programming on pandemic support, including providing paid time off for employees to get the vaccine and 80 hours paid time off for staff to self-isolate, as well as expanding its wellness account to allow employees to purchase home office equipment, in addition to a $250 home office stipend.

Read: 3M Canada wins mental-health award for refreshing support during pandemic

As large customer channels of Coca-Cola Canada Bottling Ltd.’s business shut down during the pandemic, it also implemented several mental-health initiatives, including information sessions about its EAP, increased coverage for psychological services — from $1,500 to $5,000 annually — and expanded coverage to include social workers and psychotherapists.

“We’ve decided to continue with that expanded coverage and increase for the 2022 benefit year,” says Elaine Cheung, the organization’s senior manager of total rewards. “And we’ve seen, based on our usage data, that we’ve almost doubled in terms of our claims paid for psychologists, so we know employees and their dependants are using it.”

Coca-Cola also facilitated virtual monthly ‘mental-health moments,’ which were initially rolled out during Mental Health Awareness Week in May 2020. “It’s been a very strange time and we wanted to give people the opportunity to take a break in their day, offer them a theme or a thought to discuss . . . and then we allowed them to go into breakout rooms to talk about that theme or that topic,” says Jen Leduc, the organization’s director of capability and talent management.

With the onset of the pandemic, CIBC Mellon provided all employees with hand sanitizer pens branded with its EAP information, introduced several virtual health-care offerings, enhanced its mental-health benefits coverage and expanded the types of professionals covered by the plan.

“CIBC Mellon always had some sort of mental-health strategy in place for employees, but once the pandemic hit, we heightened that focus and made sure to advertise it to employees, that it’s at their disposal for whenever they need it and it’s super important,” says Alisha Klepacki, the company’s benefits program specialist.

Using data

When Crystal Arnold, LifeLabs’ program manager of retirement and benefits, joined the organization in 2018 and began pulling together all of its wellness supports, she found some startling data — between 2011 and 2016, claims for mental health were spiking at 137 per cent.

“Way before the pandemic, that was something we were seeing in the data — people were going off on mental-health [leaves], it was one of our top two claims’ categories for the past several years. So that was always a major focus.”

Read: LifeLabs awarded for strengthening mental-health program in face of pandemic

The organization embedded its mental-health supports right into its plan design. “With COVID, as an example, when things change and we need to adapt quickly, we’ve got that foundation in place so that we can deliver on the mental-health supports that people need,” says Arnold.

In 2020, CSA Group saw a 69 per cent increase in the number of employees making claims for mental health and a 26 per cent rise among dependants. As part of its benefits changes, the organization increased its mental-health coverage, from $1,000 to $5,000 annually.

“There was a limited number of services covered and we expanded it to everything, including marriage and family therapists and every type of licensed practitioner that could be available to our employees so they had broader depth,” says Mason.

Looking at its health-care spending account usage, CSA Group also noticed people were running out of coverage as they used the account for psychology-related benefits. “[In 2021], we’re starting to see some claims moved to the health-care spending account towards the latter half of the year and we’re already starting to think we’ll increase our maximum again,” she says. “People have so many cost pressures in their lives, we don’t want mental health to be one of them for our employees or their dependants.”

Read: Back to basics on health-care spending accounts

Coca-Cola was in the opposite position, with its short-term disability claims related to mental health decreasing by 58 per cent in 2020 over 2019. “We really thought hard about what it is about our plan that’s different,” says Cheung. “We really think it’s a holistic approach that we’ve taken with all of our campaigns . . . and the way we handle the pandemic.”

Connecting with employees

In addition to claims data, leading employers are drawing from their employees’ views to inform their mental-health strategy.

Before the pandemic, 3M Canada conducted focus groups to find out what employees needed and where resources or tools might be lacking. “That’s when we started building a pretty robust mental-health, health and wellness program for them,” says Jacquie McLennan, the company’s benefits specialist. “Reducing stigma, helping with coping, building resilience — those are the kinds of things we heard in the employee focus groups that we really needed to get out there to help employees do just that.”

While CIBC Mellon conducts employee surveys to obtain feedback, they’ve become more frequent during the pandemic. The results indicated staff wanted more ways to engage and connect with each other, so the organization launched an initiative called ‘Join the Conversation,’ which helps strengthen and foster connections and dialogue.

Read: Injecting communications with kindness and confidence during the coronavirus crisis

CSA Group has conducted several employee check-in surveys in 2020 and 2021, which included an expanded section on mental health. “Our employee engagement score was the highest it’s been [and] our mental-health score was the highest it’s been and the commentary that came in had a lot of support of the benefits that were in place,” says Mason.

Air Canada conducts a lot of surveys — via its social media platform, in person and over email, says Sobora Duy, the airline’s manager of mental health and wellness. “We have a thing called the Daily, which is sent to employees every day . . . . It’s there, if you need support, there’s the EAP, there’s [other resources as well].”

Finalist figures

137% — The percentage spike in mental-health claims among 3M Canada’s staff between 2011 and 2016

349 — The number of Air Canada employees who attended the organization’s town hall on building resilience in 2020, compared to typical attendance between 150 and 250

95% — The percentage of CIBC Mellon employees who said they’re receiving the support they need from their managers

$5,000 — The amount of annual coverage that Coca-Cola employees and their dependants receive for mental-health services, compared to $1,500 before the pandemic

35% — The reduction in the average duration of open short-term disability claims in the most recent fiscal year at CSA Group

250+ — The number of LifeLabs’ leaders who completed a mental-health leadership certificate program in 2021

When Coca-Cola fielded an engagement survey in October 2021, it didn’t ask specifically about mental health, says Leduc, but it asked several questions related to inclusion. It found 80 per cent of employees feel they can be themselves at work. “That idea of inclusion and an inclusive workforce, we’ve always made sure that included people who might be struggling with mental wellness.”

Support from senior leadership

3M Canada’s President Penny Wise plays a critical role in reducing stigma around mental health and integrating the topic into everyday conversation. During monthly town halls, she reiterates and promotes the organization’s mental-health tools and resources.

LifeLabs’ chief executive officer also hosts video chats with all employees, highlighting his passion for mental health. “I think having that support from the CEO — and the CEO has made it very visible — that puts a face to our strategy,” says Pettingill.

Read: Workplace stress on the rise as mental-health stigma declines: survey

When Air Canada launched its annual mental-health campaign in October 2020, the kickoff included a testimonial from its senior vice-president and chief technical officer, who described her own personal story, making it easier for others to put up their hands for help.

“It’s promoted from the top as well,” says Annie Brunelle, the airline’s senior director of total rewards. “If we look at our leader of HR, it’s also included in those weekly emails that go to all employees to make sure that it’s at the forefront and employees know it’s available to them.”

And at Coca-Cola, the senior leadership team drives the mental-health strategy, says Leduc, with Cheung adding the increased investment in psychology services is proof of that.

Mental-health training

While LifeLabs offered mental-health training for HR staff in 2019, it rolled the training out to all leaders through the pandemic. Air Canada also provided mental-health training for its managers. And Coca-Cola introduced mental-health awareness training for its people leaders.

“We made that commitment just before the pandemic hit,” says Leduc. “It was a goal for us to really make sure that we had mental-health skills training for all the managers starting in 2020.”

Read: Using data to develop holistic workplace mental-health training

At 3M Canada, all managers underwent mental-health training to help them identify symptoms and ensure they were comfortable guiding employees to the right tools and resources, says McLennan. “We wanted them to be quite familiar with everything we had in place . . . to assist the employees to reach out, whether it be [EAP] services or some of our infographics or videos.”

In 2021, CSA Group provided additional mental-health training aimed at building resilience through the pandemic and beyond. Later in the year, it also introduced mental-health first aid training for key roles within the organization. “We did employee check-ins through our health and safety department then, once we got the feedback from that, we offered initial mental-health awareness training to all employees globally,” says Mason.

CIBC Mellon also introduced training for managers around mental-health awareness and support. “So elevating the conversation from a ‘Hi, how are you?’ to a more specific and more direct questions like how their kids are doing, just so they could get a better sense if things are truly going well or if they’re not,” says Klepacki.

Virtual services

In addition to a range of other supports, employees at CIBC Mellon now have access to guided digital therapy, meditation and online cognitive behavioural therapy with the costs eligible for reimbursement under its wellness account.

“When the pandemic hit, we looked to increase the things you’re able to expense through the wellness account, which is when we introduced the ability to claim things like CBT,” says Klepacki.

Read: Plan sponsors, members embracing virtual health-care services: survey

In 2020, CSA Group also introduced company-paid online CBT, online mental health and family therapy at a substantially reduced fee and digital health care with access to virtual walk-in clinics. “We think it’s a great tool for those things that you can resolve through a virtual call without having to take time off work, without having to leave your family or take a sick kid somewhere,” says Mason.

While Air Canada introduced virtual CBT as a permanent offering in 2020, it has also leveraged the available options from its EAP provider. “We’re looking at investigating more enhanced counselling services,” says Chung. “This is the new reality. We’re going to have to offer more virtual products. People are familiar with it now, they’re socialized to it and they understand the benefits of having the convenience [and] accessibility of virtual products. My wish list would be to expand on that . . . an enhanced suite of telemedical services.”

Jennifer Paterson is the editor of Benefits Canada.