Even though the pandemic phase of the coronavirus crisis may be waning, two winners and three finalists in the 2022 Workplace Benefits Awards’ mental-health categories are keeping their feet on the gas in making employee support a priority and overcoming the lingering stigma.

Regardless of the sector in which they operate, all of these organizations are strengthening their mental-health strategies through designated programs, leadership training and online resources.

The Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan

The Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan started developing its mental-health strategy in 2020 after one of its employers said its staff were struggling with their mental health, says Nikki Booth, the organization’s communications manager.

Read: Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan awarded for extensive mental-health strategy

“We had a thorough discussion with our workplace wellness [team] and we came up with the idea to do a mental-health campaign. We named it ‘It Takes a Village’ because it really does take a village to work on our mental health.”

In January 2021, the ASEBP launched the campaign with extensive resources and different communications materials, including an online hub that pooled all of its online mental-health resources into one easy-to-access portal.

“The feedback has been pretty incredible both internally and externally,” says Booth. “We’ve seen a lot of engagement — people are actively going to our website and downloading our resources. Our wellness coordinators hear a lot of great feedback when they’re working with employers so we know it’s making a difference. We know our [social media] posts are being shared a lot so it feels good. We can see the impact through anecdotal data and our website analytics.”

While the organization rolls out the mental-health campaign every January, the wellness team dialled back communications in 2022 to avoid overwhelming people, then ramped it up again for January 2023. This year, the campaign will explore the different dimensions of wellness, including managing finances to support mental health, and will include new videos and a new employee assistance provider.

The ASEBP’s focus on the different dimensions of wellness highlights how people don’t always notice the signs of mental-health issues, says Booth. “Maybe you just feel more tired or maybe you notice you’re not being as sociable. It’s about checking in and reflecting on whether there’s more to it.”

Read: Expert panel: How employers can support employee mental health in 2023

When it comes to developing a solid mental-health strategy, she suggests employers focus on clearly communicating the available resources and creating safe spaces to help remove the stigma around discussing mental health. “The process can be daunting and often people don’t reach out unless they’re in a crisis. One of the big things for us with It Takes a Village is taking away the stigma. It’s one of the main reasons why people don’t reach out when they need help.”

Flight Centre Travel Group

Flight Centre Travel Group is also focusing on overcoming the stigma around mental health.

In October 2022, alongside Mental Illness Awareness Week, the company launched its first episode in a monthly podcast called ‘Encouraging the Conversation.’ The podcast, which features topics like overcoming depression and therapy options, is hosted by different employees with some volunteering to share their own struggles.

By the numbers

64% of benefits plan members in poor mental health delayed seeking treatment during the pandemic.

40% of members reported their mental health was generally excellent or very good over the last year.

• 22% of members have been diagnosed with a mental-health condition such as depression or anxiety.

Source: The 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey

“We’re trying to reduce that stigma and get employees to feel comfortable reaching out,” says Anna Fisher, health and wellness director at Flight Centre Travel Group Americas. “It’s not [famous people] talking, these are everyday people who
do the same type of jobs.

“So if an employee hears something, they can relate [and] maybe that will encourage them to reach out for help or talk to somebody.”

Read: Stigma preventing employees from seeking mental-health help: report

The company’s mental-health strategy focuses on promoting five ways to encourage well-being: connect, give, keep learning, be active and take notice. “[Our strategy] is preventative, if you’re able to balance each aspect, whether it’s day to day, weekly — whatever people can manage,” says Fisher. “We promote those facets throughout the year, but we really put an emphasis on mental health during the pandemic when people were stuck at home.”

Indeed, the travel industry was hit very hard during the coronavirus crisis, so Flight Centre employees went through a lot concerning their mental health. Employees were split into two groups: those who were furloughed and those who were still working. “The people who were actually still working for us were overextending themselves, they were burning out and they were short staffed,” says Fisher. “The ones on the front lines had to deal with a lot of refunds. It wasn’t pleasant work dealing with upset customers and there were no commissions because there were no sales. They were doing these crazy shifts and it was a lot of extra work.”

The furloughed group’s mental health was also affected due to so much uncertainty, she adds, noting they were asking whether they’d get their jobs back and how long it would take.

Air Canada

Another employer in the travel industry, Air Canada had to pivot in similar ways when the pandemic hit.

“It’s no secret a lot of employees were laid off,” says Sobora Duy, the airline’s manager for mental health and wellness programs. “The pandemic affected us in a lot of ways.”

In 2020, when the company began delivering online mental-health support through videos and webinars, it noticed a significant spike in engagement, likely due to the fact that a lot of employees could easily watch from home, he notes.

Read: One year later: How the pandemic sped up the shift to virtual mental-health care

“A lot of people had anxiety because they were afraid and unsure, so we hosted town halls with [human resources] where we’d answer questions like, ‘Are we losing our jobs? What happens to my benefits?’ The goal was to give our employees reassurance by providing information and a sense of security.”

Air Canada also extended the eligibility for its EAP, adding its largest union representing 10,000 employees as well as pilots. It also introduced an online cognitive behavioural therapy tool to supplement the EAP, which brought its mental-health services under one umbrella.

“Eighty-seven per cent of employees reported [the program] helped reduce their mental-health symptoms,” says Duy. “A lot of employees let their families use it as well because it was made available to immediate family. We felt it was the right thing to do for our employees and you can’t put a price tag on mental health.”

Looking to the future, the airline is working with its EAP provider on enhanced counselling options, as well as a pilot project for no-limit counselling.

Read: LifeLabs adding resources to support employee mental health

Air Canada has opened a wellness centre at its Montreal headquarters and is looking at opening other gyms on company property to help with employee wellness, as well as working on peer-to-peer support and focusing more on frontline employees. “This past summer, the airline industry got hit really hard,” says Duy. “There was a major increase in travel and, with a lot of new employees, it was a difficult adjustment period. [Those in customer service] were impacted the most.”

Corus Entertainment

Corus Entertainment Inc. also used the conditions of the pandemic to pivot and change the way it communicated with employees regarding mental-health support and resources.

The media company launched a well-being strategy in January 2020, then refocused it in March. “It’s the first time we’ve done anything that comprehensive and focused,” says Natalia Williams, its director of internal communications. “Given what everyone was going through [with the pandemic], in addition to what we were seeing with our benefits data, the timing really was ideal to focus on mental and emotional health — and it’s going to remain the focus for the company for the foreseeable future.”

Part of the program’s refocus was its move online, she adds. “I think the [silver lining] with online sessions is that it’s opened up that content to a lot more people. More employees have access to it and they can schedule it into their workdays.”

In 2021, with a significant investment, Corus was one of the first Canadian employers to remove the mental-health benefits spend maximum for all employees, says Cindy Vienneau, the company’s head of total rewards.

Read: 2022 Mental Health Summit: The key to sustainable mental-health strategy measures

“Since we lifted the cap, more employees have benefited and gained access to mental-health professionals by taking advantage of the resources we provide to improve their mental health. Our benefits claims for mental-health professionals increased from 893 to 1,698 [between 2021 and 2022]. In the last fiscal year, a total of 2,493 claims were made towards mental health, highlighting the effectiveness of prioritizing mental health and removing the cap on [these] benefits.”

Finalist figures

87% — The percentage of Air Canada employees who reported the company’s mental-health strategy helped reduce their symptoms

• 265 — The total visits to the ASEBP’s mental-health page during the CMHA’s Mental Health Week in May 2021, compared to 16 the prior week

71% — The percentage of BGIS workers who participated in its voluntary leader mental-health training in the fall of 2021

2,493 — The total number of mental-health claims at Corus Entertainment in the last fiscal year

898 — The number of employees who participated in Flight Centre’s wellness challenges between July 2021 and May 2022

Leadership training is also a key aspect of Corus’ mental-health strategy. “We launched people leader training in the last year and the primary focus of that was to really address the stigma within the workplace and to make it a safe place for people to be able to discuss and address their mental-health concerns,” says Vienneau.

Following a lot of positive feedback and requests from employees, the company is planning to expand the training in the future.

Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions Canada

Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions Canada is also focusing on leadership training in the coming year to enhance its mental-health strategy.

“One of the things we’re going to do [in 2023] is really focus on our leaders and continuing to make sure they’re well equipped, not only from a mental-health standpoint but also general well-being,” says Dana Hurst, the facility management company’s director of wellness. “On a quarterly basis, all our new leaders, whether they’re new to the company or just promoted, will have mental-health training sessions. We’ll look at how we can embed this support further into our workplace culture as well.”

In July 2021, BGIS created a new committee, made up of employees from across the organization who help champion wellness. The Balance Committee is a dedicated resource that signals the company’s focus on wellness is here to stay, says Hurst.

Read: BGIS wins mental-health award for integrated approach to employee support

“We decided to launch the Balance Committee because we want representation from across our organization. We also have representation from different roles within the committee to be able to understand [their perspectives] and how to reach them from a communications standpoint since we’re not all office workers.”

One of the committee’s best uses, she adds, is as a way to gauge employee interest in a potential new program or initiative. “How we communicate to our employees is key because if they don’t know about [our resources], how can they use them? We try to use multiple communication methods. Employees can feel inundated from getting so many emails, so we try to tap into things where we have captive audiences.”

BGIS’ communications include town halls with upwards of 2,500 employees participating, as well as monthly team meetings and an internal portal that’s currently being revamped. And, with employees starting to return to the company’s office, it’s focusing on putting up visual reminders, such as posters, about mental-health support, in commonly used areas.

Sadie Janes is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.