Left to right: Melissa Dal Vecchio, Sarika Gundu

Navigating the care path for health-care issues can be overwhelming and confusing — so much so, it can act as a deterrent to people seeking help.

In terms of mental-health support, the Bank of Montreal launched a digital navigation guide in May to point staff in the right direction. The tool, which is available to employees in both Canada and the U.S., streamlines access to much-needed supports and resources in both the private and public health-care systems.

“We recognize that the bank’s responsibility is to support our employees’ mental health and wellness, so they can be their best selves at work,” says Sarika Gundu, BMO’s director of Canadian health and welfare benefits. “When someone is in crisis, you want it to be as easy as possible for them to get the care they need to help them be at their best mentally, physically, socially and financially.”

Read: CAMH releases workplace mental-health guide

The mental-health guide was inspired by the bank’s cancer care navigation guide, which is available to its U.S.-based employees, says Melissa Dal Vecchio, BMO’s senior benefits consultant in the U.S., noting the cancer care guide emerged from employees’ experiences accessing care under their workplace benefits plan or through the public health-care system in the U.S.

The fact the guide is helping people who are navigating the cancer care system is a comfort to Dal Vecchio, whose father passed away from cancer while she was helping to develop the resource. “We’re hoping to highlight how we can help support the cancer care journey [for] patients, but also [for] caregivers or supporters. Whether you’re an employee, a dependant or a friend, we wanted to provide information about the comprehensive medical coverage and resources we offer.”

A digital roadmap

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for more mental-health support, with employers stepping up to provide these services, says Tom Milne, a principal in communications at Normandin Beaudry.

But now that employees have these support tools, they’re asking where they should go to access them, he adds. Among all young Canadians who accessed mental-health services in the six months leading up to December 2022, more than half said they weren’t easy to access, according to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

BMO recognized that finding information wasn’t easy, says Gundu, noting it developed the mental-health navigation guide as a digital roadmap to the different steps to care. “While there is abundant information on mental-health care, it’s packaged in different areas,” she adds, noting it was crucial for employees to have a one-stop shop for mental-health information as they were emerging from the pandemic environment.

Read: 2021 Mental Health Summit: Internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy a key mental-health strategy

Indeed, BMO has invested heavily in its mental-health benefits over the last few years, including increasing its mental-health coverage for Canadian employees to $7,000 a year, as well as adding an internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy platform and a wellness hub with a number of resources. The bank also provides employees with access to the wellness app Headspace, as well as four passes for their friends to use.

By the numbers

24% of benefits plan members would use a health-care navigation system if it was part of their plan, up from 15% in 2021. This percentage increased to 29% among plan members with chronic health conditions.

41% of plan sponsors already offer a health-care navigation system.

27% of plan sponsors are interested in offering a navigation system.

Source: 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey

The new navigation guide includes: information on the bank’s comprehensive mental-health coverage; links to public resources such as community support groups, government resources and various information websites and vendors; information on how to do self-checks, how to ask for support, how to practice self-care and how to check in with others; and links to search engines with a number of filters on how to locate a practitioner so employees can more easily find individualized care.

“Some people may feel more comfortable speaking to a practitioner from their own culture and community,” says Gundu. “Employees can use the search engine to locate health-care professionals with certain types of training that best suits them and their families.”

Read: Head to head: Should employers increase mental-health coverage or expand the types of health-care professionals in their benefits plans?

BMO hopes the guide will empower employees to prioritize their own well-being. “We want employees to use it as a starting point to navigate where to go or [find out information] such as the difference between a psychotherapist and a psychologist. It was important for us to create something that . . . people [could] have at their fingertips.”

Getting the word out

Providing access to mental-health resources won’t make a difference to employers’ well-being strategies if employees don’t take advantage of them, says Gundu, noting BMO’s human resources team knows that building up employees’ awareness of the support resources is critical to ensuring they get the care they need when they need it.

This important balance demonstrates the value of benefits communications, says Milne, suggesting employers be proactive and constantly communicate the mental-health tools available in their benefits plans. “Anything that emp-loyers can do to continue that conversation and check in on employees [to] ensure they’re providing the programs they need [and] that employees are actually taking advantage of them is great.”

Read: City of Toronto using cartoons to make benefits communications more engaging

BMO has steadily promoted its mental-health navigation guide, amplifying the message that it’s available to assist employees on their well-being journey. It appears on the bank’s intranet site and is frequently highlighted during company events, including during a mental-health and well-being fireside chat and in company wellness sessions. It’s also tied into broader initiatives, like Mental Health Awareness Week in Canada and World Mental Health Day programs and events.

The work is paying off, says Dal Vecchio. As of mid-June, the navigation guide had around 1,700 views. Feedback from employees has also been positive, she adds, noting employees have expressed that the navigation guide is another way the bank is showing it cares for their health and well-being.

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.