During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the Ottawa Community Housing Corp. battened down the hatches and focused on addressing any absence management issues before they occurred.

Now, Cindy Newell, the company’s director of human resources, says OCH is expecting to see fewer disability leaves post-pandemic, thanks to a proactive absence and disability management strategy and its leveraging of new and existing employee support tools, including the benefits plan, policies, training and technology.

Read: Pandemic putting absence management in spotlight for majority of U.S. employers: survey

“At a time when other organizations were seeing an increase in absenteeism, we’ve seen a significant decrease,” she says. “While we’ll continue to monitor the metrics, it’s our belief that we’ll continue to see less absenteeism.”

The HR team plays a critical role in supporting and building these tools and guidelines because they’re the first-line contact with employees, notes Newell. To build its prevention strategy, OCH moved from being reactive to engaging employees and their leaders in a proactive discussion around what’s important for employees around their health and wellness. Once it established guidelines, the organization focused on leveraging support tools and resources to address any attendance issues before they occurred.

By the numbers

According to the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, 55% of plan sponsors said they anticipate different health and wellness challenges due to more employees working from home. When asked to describe these challenges, respondents cited:

68% — More mental-health claims from stress/isolation
as a result of the pandemic
65% — Anxiety among employees returning to the workplace because they’re unsure of colleagues’ vaccination statuses
51% — More musculoskeletal issues from poor ergonomics

Michael Dimaano, OCH’s manager of total compensation and HR policy, suggests employers discuss all of their options with their benefits providers to see how they can adjust their existing offerings to suit the needs of their workforce today.

Read: How will the coronavirus impact long-term disability claims?

Since the organization took this step, it’s now in a good position to offer the support its employees need, he adds. For instance, OCH is anticipating employees might need more sessions with psychologists or psychotherapists, so it worked with its mental-health provider to determine ways to maximize the cost of the benefit. “We were able to extend our employees’ coverage to provide them with double the number of sessions at the same price.”

Mental health’s impact on disability claims

Many employers are focusing on their employees’ mental health as the pandemic continues. With workers experiencing burnout and ongoing uncertainty, the ‘shadow’ pandemic — which encompasses several different crises accelerated by the coronavirus — is likely already descending on employee well-being.

While mental-health issues have traditionally vied with musculoskeletal conditions in terms of the prevalence of short-term disability claims, it’s typically the No. 1 cause of incidence in long-term disability claims, says Darren Harris, director of absence, disability and health management at Willis Towers Watson. “It can also be one of the costliest claims as mental-health related disability leaves are complicated in terms of getting people back to work.”

Read: Employees with chronic health conditions facing challenges during pandemic: survey

Julie Gaudry, head of group insurance at RBC Insurance Inc., agrees mental-health related issues are the No. 1 driver of disability claims. “There’s much discussion on the added mental-health challenges related to the last 18 months that . . . could lead to an increase in . . . claims beyond what we’ve experienced to date.”

Currently, the percentage of long-term mental-health disability claims is about 34 per cent, she says, which isn’t significantly higher than in previous years. However, these claims have been slowly rising among those aged 18 to 35, from around 40 per cent in 2019 to 45 per cent in 2020 and 49 per cent year to date in 2021.

Considering the prevalence of this younger generation in the workforce today, Gaudry says employers need to watch this trend closely to ensure they’re adequately supporting their recovery and return to stable work.

While Scotiabank expected to see an increase in mental-health related disability claims during the pandemic, the number of claims stayed relatively consistent with past years’ trends. “I think flexibility and the focus that organizations have had in promoting the tools that exist or providing additional tools played a part in this outcome,” says Ayman Alvi, the bank’s director of global benefits.

Read: Webinar coverage: Is flexibility key to a successful return to the workplace?

The past year and a half has underlined the importance of managing mental health, says Elena Palumbo-Sergnese, senior vice-president of HR at the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan. “As the boundary between work and home blurred during the pandemic and people found themselves juggling multiple responsibilities simultaneously, many individuals in the workforce were coping with new levels of stress and mental-health challenges.”

As a result, she says the pandemic has accelerated the conversation around mental health and its link to overall well-being. “Organizations can provide considerable value, to themselves and their employees, by investing in employees’ mental wellness. These programs can be preventative, helping individuals get the support they need before a situation escalates to the point where a leave might be necessary.”

For the HOOPP, these programs include mental-health training for managers, seminars for all employees on mental health and an online program that connects staff with registered mental-health practitioners at a reduced cost.

Benefits claims paid out rise in first year of pandemic

$420 million — The amount in psychology-related benefits paid out by insurers in 2020, an increase of 24% since 2019.

$154 million — The amount paid out in individual and group life insurance claims from deaths related to the virus.

$150 million — The additional amount in disability claims paid out, above what was projected for 2020, to support employees while they recovered from the virus.

Source: The CLHIA’s 2020 fact book

And, while the pension fund’s focus is on prevention, it also strives to make its disability management process as effective as possible, says Palumbo-Sergnese. The organization has implemented a “buddy system” for employees on leave to help them stay connected to work, if they wish to, she adds, noting this can help make the transition back to work easier and less stressful.

Read: Canadian employers stepping up as controversy around paid sick days swirls

“If an employee does require a leave, we ensure they have as much or as little communication as they want from HOOPP while away and we work hard to deliver all the support they need when returning to work. We always ask employees about their experience with the process so we can continue to improve it.”

In order to accommodate the pandemic environment, the organization also made some adjustments to its benefits, temporarily amending its sick leave policy to provide up to 20 paid sick days to all employees who contracted the coronavirus — and without the need for a doctor’s note. And last year it provided employees with additional holidays to mitigate burnout.

Using flexibility, prioritizing benefits

Disability management is in need of a big overhaul, says Julie Holden, principal of Holden and Associates Consulting Inc., suggesting that if employers take some funds from other areas and redeploy them into prevention tools, it would help employees stay healthy and prevent disabilities.

It’s a way to rethink disability management by focusing more on function than diagnosis and prognosis, which has typically been the norm, she says, adding data has found many people who are suffering with illnesses like depression and anxiety can work in the short term while they’re receiving treatment.

Read: Role of data integration in disability management post-pandemic

“Employees can still work part time while they receive treatment so that the duration of leave is lessened. I’ve seen people recover and enjoy a healthy lifestyle, while working with their team of health-care professionals, without having to necessarily take a leave from work. However, this type of arrangement would call for flexibility from the employer.”

Many employers have already added flexibility around employees’ work schedules, with the pandemic proving employees can still be productive this way, says Harris. “There’s been a tremendous effort to really understand the employee experience and a lot of employers are mimicking their organization’s brand attributes . . . and developing a strategy that connects all the well-being initiatives with HR programs and benefits and services.”

As one example, many employers are increasing their paramedical coverage, realizing employees need more of these services and on an ongoing basis, adds Harris, noting they’re also expanding the list of included mental-health professionals.

Read: Back to basics on health-care spending accounts

Key takeaways

• The future of absence and disability management lies in leveraging flexibility so employees can continue to work while receiving treatment.

• To get ahead of a possible coming surge in disability leaves, employers should re-evaluate how their benefits offerings meet the evolving needs of employees.

• Investing in virtual health-care solutions now will enable employees to get the care they need when they need it — keeping them healthy, safe and on the job.

Health-care spending accounts is another area that provides freedom of choice to employees, he notes. “Rather than having the standard medical plan terms and benefits that they can take advantage of, there’s an opportunity for employees to get creative with the dollars they’re given in the HCSA. But [employers] should ensure the dollars available is meaningful enough for employees to actually use them.”

In addition, Harris says telehealth providers have been crucial during the pandemic, referring to new entrants in the virtual health space, such as internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy and other programs around building resiliency, mindfulness, self-care and fostering social connections. “It’s incumbent on employers, if they saw an increase in their paramedical benefits claims, to recognize that and try to meet those needs with solutions like some of these digital offerings.”

Scotiabank introduced an optional virtual health-care program on April 1, 2020, then made it permanent in response to the pandemic, including it as one of the company’s core, employer-paid benefits. Many employees are taking advantage of the virtual solutions, says Alvi, even if it’s just to help with anxiety around the virus.

The next phase

OCH is turning its attention to supporting employees through the next phase of the pandemic, which is re-integration, says Newell.

“It’s important for us to take that same approach that we’ve taken all along to support employees because it’s not over yet and it won’t be over when the doors to offices reopen. There’s a lot of work and conversations ahead and HR plays a critical role in . . . fuelling those discussions.”

Read: Employee well-being critical to return to work after pandemic

Newell believes more companies will see a decline in absenteeism and disability leaves in the future, but it won’t happen naturally without additional support programs. She suggests employers invest in flexible benefits in order to get ahead of what could be a tsunami of mental-health issues in the workplace.

“The pandemic has taught us a lot and it’s really emphasized the importance of flexibility . . . and introduced this notion of making sure offerings have the ability to adapt to individual circumstances.”

At OCH, that means flexibility with schedules to accommodate employees’ changing needs, providing ongoing support through lunch and learn sessions, engaging the organization’s benefits providers, conducting ergonomics training for those who are working from home and continuing to make virtual health care available.

“When it’s time to reintegrate [employees] into the workplace, we want them to be ready to fire at all cylinders,” says Newell.

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.