Nearly four years after a global health crisis sparked an enduring spotlight on Canadians’ mental health, employees are increasingly making use of their workplace benefits while employers continue to push the boundaries in the programs and support they offer.

Two-thirds (67 per cent) of Canadian benefits plan members used their mental-health benefits in the last year, according to the 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, while three-quarters (73 per cent) said their workplace environment supports mental wellness.

It was heartening to see the survey’s findings reflected in the calibre and number of entries in Benefits Canada’s 2023 Workplace Benefits Awards’ mental-health categories. However, it’s also somewhat of a double-edged sword — employers are continuing to introduce various levels of mental-health support for their workforces, but they’re doing so because of the increasing need for these programs.

Read: How 5 employers are ensuring mental health remains a priority

Benefits Canada asked the finalists — and two winners — about their award-worthy mental-health strategies and how they’ve evolved in the past few years.

First West Credit Union

In late 2021, First West Credit Union noticed its short- and long-term disability rates were rising due to mental-health issues and knew it had to up its game to support employees’ mental health to reverse the trend.

To begin, the British Columbia-based credit union conducted an employee survey, which showed the results varied significantly by location and type of work. It was clear a one-size-fits-all program wasn’t going to be effective, so it developed its three-year Live Well strategy.

“It started from a concept and knowing there was a problem to a full-on evolution of supports and systems in place that are available at any time to help employees,” says Kabir Bhagaria, First West’s manager of employee health and safety.

By the numbers

• 73% of plan members agreed their workplace environment supports mental wellness.

67% of plan members used their employer-provided mental-health benefits in the previous year.

18% of plan members self-reported their mental health as generally poor over the past year, down slightly from 22% in 2022. However, this surged to 74% among those who also described their overall health as poor.

14% of plan members said their benefits plans’ coverage level for mental-health therapy fell short in the previous year.

Source: The 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey

Since managers know their employees and their workplaces the best, the organization first focused on its leaders, running sessions on psychological safety that aimed to promote an environment where it’s safe for employees to speak up and be themselves at work. Indeed, First West’s mental-health philosophy can be summed up by the terms inclusive, supportive, open and welcoming.

“There is no employee that wouldn’t receive help,” says Bhagaria. “If they say to their performance leader, ‘I need support right away,’ they would get it.”

Read: 2023 Mental Health Summit: How First West Credit Union is supporting employee health, well-being

One of the unique aspects of the program is a new role called Live Well Champions. Any employee — rom frontline workers to vice-presidents — can volunteer to become a champion, which includes learning how to recognize when a colleague is struggling, what to do to help them and how to support leaders. Currently, the organization has 60 Live Well Champions, with one or two at each location.

“They really help to drive a lot of the promotion initiatives, . . . especially with the remote work environment and being spread all over B.C.,” says Bhagaria. “People come and go all the time, but for the most part, we’ve got a very steady, stable group of Live Well Champions. Our goal [in 2024] is to offer them individual education sessions on various topics.”

Flight Centre Travel Group

Flight Centre Travel Group was the 2023 Workplace Benefits Awards’ winner in the mental-health program category for companies with fewer than 1,000 employees for its Healthwise program, which includes a focus on mental and emotional health.

The program focuses on maintaining mental well-being to cope during challenging times and to prevent stress, which was particularly important during the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the travel industry.

The company created a perceived stress test that allows employees to determine their current stress levels and provides the health and wellness team with an overview of how employees are doing. Those with a low level of mental stress are at cruising altitude, those experiencing mild to moderate stress are experiencing turbulence and should put their seatbelts on and those with severe stress receive a message that the oxygen masks are coming down.

Read: Flight Centre wins award for mental-health training, efforts to reduce stigma

Although the anonymous stress test is for all staff, the company can pull the results and see patterns in behaviour in different areas of the business, says Anna Fisher, Flight Centre’s health and wellness director. “West Coast or East Coast, we can go to that area manager and say, ‘Your group is feeling very stressed at this particular time. Can we run training for them? Can we jump into a meeting? What can we do to help you with this problem we’ve identified?’”

The organization also encourages employees to disconnect when needed, emphasizing the need for them to set clear boundaries and to step away from work when out of the office or on vacation.

It also offers onsite wellness amenities such as a meditation room at its Toronto head office and its monthly onboarding sessions include resources and topics such as practicing gratitude on mental well-being. Flight Centre also provides mental-health leadership training for managers. It starts with 90-minute workshop-style sessions during which they learn how to create supportive environments for their teams and how to talk about mental-health challenges.

A snapshot of coverage

According to the 2023 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, 12% of plan sponsors don’t provide any coverage for mental-health counselling, up slightly from 9% in 2022.

Of the remaining plan sponsors, about a quarter provide employees with an annual coverage maximum of up to $500 (28%), between $501 and $1,000 (25%) or between $1,001 and $5,000 (23%). That leaves 7% of plan sponsors with an annual maximum exceeding $5,000 and 5% that didn’t answer.

The average reported annual maximum was $1,627, down from $2,006 in 2022 and $1,865 in 2020. In 2023, 34% of plan sponsors said they planned to increase their annual maximum for mental-health counselling, up from 28% in 2022 and the highest number recorded over the four years since this question was first asked.

In 2022, as part of its initiatives for Canadian Mental Health Week, the company launched a podcast in which employees — including Fisher — share their experiences to help reduce stigma. “It’s just another way for employees to engage,” she says. “We don’t have a problem getting volunteers to talk about different things, whether it’s a mental-health challenge or [other topics].”

The Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan

The Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan developed its mental-health strategy in 2021 to educate and empower employees and their leaders to have supportive conversations, use available tools and provide resources for both the prevention and care of mental-health challenges.

The strategy has evolved as the organization looks at key data from its benefits and drug utilization, disability management, psychological claims, employee assistance program usage and employee feedback. It has also led to more collaboration with other areas of human resources, such as the diversity, equity and inclusion team and learning and development team.

Read: 2023 Healthy Outcomes Conference: The role of mental-health care, support in DEI strategies

“We started collecting the data methodically about six years ago because we wanted to be really intentional in our programming,” says Laura Carter, the HOOPP’s HR manager of wellness and benefits, noting the data highlighted the need to invest in mental health. “I think it’s what set us up to be in a good position when the pandemic hit. We were able to move quickly to support employees.”

In 2022, the HOOP launched mental-health training for managers, with four cohorts of people leaders completing the training so far. It also brought in a mental-health expert to provide monthly coaching and resources to leaders. Its 2023 activities included a four-week workshop on managing anxiety and stress; a three-part meditation workshop on fostering authenticity and compassion; seminars on topics like anti-racism and supporting neurodiversity in the workplace; and an employee survey on children’s mental health to assess the need for resources and content.

The HOOPP noticed the need for training at the height of the pandemic when employees — and leaders — were struggling. “People leaders . . . have a unique challenge when it comes to supporting [their teams] and knowing what they can and can’t say [and] maintaining their own boundaries and mental health. It’s a tough balance and most people don’t have the tools to navigate that, so when we had a few leaders come to us, we decided to pilot the training first.”

Sun Life Financial Inc.

Nearly a decade ago, Sun Life began its mental-health journey by aligning the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace across a wide range of elements within its employee experience.

In 2016, the company increased its annual maximum mental-health coverage per employee to up to $12,500 and expanded its list of registered practitioners the following year. In 2021, it created a dedicated mental well-being team, recognizing mental health was the leading cause of disability, even pre-pandemic. The same year, it also introduced an enhanced virtual EAP and a mental-health coach pilot program.

Sun Life also offers customized mental-health training for its people leaders, including a monthly learning series; embedded content in its DEI learning platform; mental-health webinars, podcasts and resources; and featured topics during executives’ town halls. “It’s been really important for us to start by building the foundations, including employee and leader training, and really looking at our data and insights to inform where we continue to focus,” says Nicole Montpetit, the insurer’s vice-president of total rewards for Canada.

Read: Sun Life piloting virtual mental-health coach

In particular, the monthly learning series has received overwhelmingly positive feedback, she adds. “Having that direct support has increased their confidence and [ability] to manage and respond to situations from their employees.”

To promote mental health and provide work-life balance, Sun Life enhanced its annual vacation time allotment and introduced five care days annually, which encourage staff to focus on personal priorities including self-care and caring for others.

“We have a very strong caring culture at Sun Life that underpins our approach to our employees but also the flexibility,” says Montpetit. “That’s a huge driver and employees really value that within our programs. We continue to listen and learn from our employees and they really do appreciate that flexibility in addition to the other supports we have.”

Mental-health coverage by the numbers:

The current annual maximums for mental-health coverage among some of the 2023 Workplace Benefits Awards’ mental-health finalists are:

• The HOOPP: 900 employees; $2,500 in coverage per plan member

• First West Credit Union: 1,300; up to $2,000

• Sun Life: 12,642; up to $12,500

• Telus Communications: 30,000; $5,000 (+$5,000 per dependant)

Telus Communications Inc.

Recognized as the winner in the 2023 Workplace Benefits Awards’ mental-health program category for companies with more than 1,000 employees, Telus Communications’ strategy includes a commitment statement, signed by its leadership team, affirming that a psychologically safe and healthy workplace is a priority.

It established a well-being and mental-health advisory group — which includes company directors who are accredited in multiple well-being and mental-health certifications and degrees — to ensure its strategy reflects the ever-changing needs of its workforce.

Indeed, the company has secured widespread leadership support to such an extent that its executive team and other senior leaders “proactively and routinely integrate well-being and team member mental-health strategies into their respective business plans, talk about it more seamlessly in their day-to-day interactions and publicly share their well-being and mental-health perspectives on their social media channels,” says Janet Young, director of well-being and health services.

Read: Telus Communications’ commitment to psychologically safe workplace leads to award win

Telus Communications also provides annual, customized mental-health training within its business units, as well as training for all employees every two years, which it has built into its onboarding process, so staff are well-equipped in this area from day one. It also hosts robust education and awareness campaigns in recognition of Canadian Mental Health Week, World Mental Health Day and Healthy Workplace Month.

One particular initiative is the company’s identification of specific job demands and roles that are linked to higher mental-health incidence. This process helped it understand the impacts of psychological safety, scheduling, job fit, job design, team culture, virtual work, overall engagement and the role of the leader on employee mental health and enabled it to find opportunities to improve the employee experience.

“We have clearly designed our strategy and cultural framework to weave well-being and positive mental health into the fabric of Telus,” says Young. “It’s not just a stand-alone program with initiatives sprinkled throughout the year; it comes down to how we work, how jobs are designed, how we operate day to day, how we create safety for people and how we show up for each other that matters.”

Jennifer Paterson is the editor (on leave) of Benefits Canada and the Canadian Investment Review.