With the Delta variant leading the coronavirus pandemic in a renewed surge, employers continue to have a surplus of challenges, regardless of whether or not they’re planning a return to the workplace.

I discussed this latter challenge in my Editorial last month, but at the risk of heaping on more doom and gloom, it may be time to shift focus — if it hasn’t shifted already — to how the ongoing crisis will impact the management of chronic disease and short- and long-term disability programs.

Read: Editorial: Digital inclusion, employee support, flexibility key in return to the workplace

The 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey — which will be launched via English and French webinars on Oct. 20 — found the incidence of chronic disease in plan members is comparable to last year (60 per cent in 2021 compared to 58 per cent in 2020). However, it also saw a decrease in the percentage of respondents that said their chronic condition has caused them to miss work and/or made it more difficult to do their job (47 per cent in 2021 compared to 58 per cent in 2020).

Register for the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey webinar

It’s good news to hear the ability to work from home is making a difference, with 77 per cent of impacted plan members agreeing that remote working has meant they missed less work due to their chronic condition, while 34 per cent said it definitely helped.

On the other hand, pandemic restrictions have raised challenges in accessing health-care services, including the regular management and treatment required by those suffering from chronic conditions. “Those touchpoints of opportunities to screen and keep people healthy dissipated,” says Diana Sherifali, an associate professor at McMaster University’s School of Nursing, in this month’s Benefits Update. She anticipates a lot of plan members will come forward with complications as a result of missing these regular services.

Employers should be braced for this reality and its impact on their benefits plans, regardless of their intentions for returning to the workplace. Indeed, the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey also found challenges around remote working, with more than half (55 per cent) of plan sponsors agreeing they anticipate different health and wellness challenges due to more employees working from home.

Read: Supporting employees with chronic conditions amid pandemic-fueled delays to care

Asked to describe the different challenges, plan sponsors cited mental-health claims from stress/isolation (68 per cent); anxiety among employees returning to the workplace because they’re unsure who’s been vaccinated (65 per cent); identifying employees struggling with mental-health issues (62 per cent); musculoskeletal issues from poor ergonomics (51 per cent); increased obesity (40 per cent); equality of programs/services for a hybrid workforce (38 per cent); and chronic pain (28 per cent).

This month’s Benefits Feature explores the pandemic’s impact on disability management, with many experts inadvertently agreeing with the survey’s findings — that the steep climb ahead will be predicated upon, and focused on, mental-health related challenges.

The article shares how three employers — the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan, the Ottawa Community Housing Corp. and Scotiabank — are taking a proactive approach to preventing a ‘shadow’ pandemic in their workplaces.

In terms of actions, the HOOPP is providing mental-health training for its managers, seminars for its broader employee population and an online program that connects staff with registered mental-health practitioners at a reduced cost. It also temporarily amended its sick leave policy to provide up to 20 paid sick days to all employees who caught the coronavirus. And last year it provided employees with additional holidays to mitigate burnout.

Read: Employers leveraging benefits, flexibility to prevent pandemic surge in disability claims

OCH is expecting to see fewer disability leaves, thanks to its proactive absence and disability management strategy, as well as how it’s leveraging new and existing support tools, including its benefits plan, guidelines, training and technology. “At a time when other organizations were seeing an increase in absenteeism, we’ve seen a significant decrease,” says the company’s director of HR.

And while Scotiabank introduced an optional virtual health-care program on April 1, 2020, it made the benefit permanent as a result of the pandemic. The bank expected to see an increase in mental-health related disability claims, the number of claims stayed relatively consistent with past years’ trends, according to Scotiabank’s director of global benefits.

These are just three examples of leading employers using their benefits and leave programs to prepare for what comes next. Unfortunately, the pandemic and its repercussions are likely far from over, but if organizations are already thinking along these lines, they’ll be a few steps ahead as the future workplace comes into focus.

Jennifer Paterson is the editor of Benefits Canada.