Benefits plans with a wide range of mental-health supports are taking on new importance as employers look to attract and retain key talent in a tight labour market, said Julie Gaudry, head of group insurance at RBC Insurance Inc., during Benefits Canada’s 2021 Mental Health Summit. 

One third of Canadian businesses are currently grappling with labour shortages, according to a November report from RBC Economics. It’s a figure that’s only set to grow as 23 per cent of the working age population is expected to be 65 years or older by 2024.  

While the ongoing worker shortages will continue to put upward pressure on wages, Gaudry noted flexible working arrangements and other benefits will also be key to bringing on top talent. According to an October 2021 survey by RBC Insurance, 68 per cent of Canadians said they’d take a job with a good benefits plan over another job that pays more but doesn’t offer benefits. 

Read: Canadian employees prioritizing benefits programs over pay: survey

Despite this, four in 10 Canadians said their benefits plan hasn’t met their needs in the past year. That sentiment was strongest among employees aged 18 to 34 (49 per cent), followed by those aged 35 to 54 (41 per cent).  

“Satisfaction has largely been sitting around the same level if not declining over the last little while, yet what’s included [in benefits plans] and how you access them has likely only improved over the years,” said Gaudry. “What’s likely changed is the expectations of those consumers of benefits.” 

Employees’ expectations now include an employer with progressive workplace policies, she said, such as programs and supports for mental health and well-being and a caring workplace culture that helps rather than harms workers’ mental health and well-being. They also want employers that put greater focus on inclusivity in the workplace, including making sure benefits are accessible to all. They’re also looking for digital, personalized solutions — demand for which has only accelerated after the past year and a half. 

Employers are listening. The RBC survey found 76 per cent of employers are revisiting their health and well-being offerings. Gaudry noted this comes after a year that’s dealt a crushing blow to the mental health of Canadians — particularly young employees and women — and as mental-health challenges have come to dominate long-term disability claims.  

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

According to RBC Insurance’s claims experience, the number of claims and claimants for mental health-related paramedical practitioners increased faster year over year than other diagnostic categories. The pace of growth was even faster for claimants aged 18 to 34, in comparison to their older colleagues. The 18 to 34 age group also had a higher percentage of new long-term disability claims related to mental-health conditions (49 per cent) than older age groups. 

Digital mental-health solutions can help improve both delivery of care and outcomes for plan members, said Gaudry, noting 48 per cent of employees expect employers to offer these options as part of their benefits plan. Those with chronic health conditions or disabilities and young people are more likely to see the value in and want to use virtual health solutions. 

During the pandemic, RBC Insurance introduced a series of webinars for its plan sponsor clients’ people managers and plan members, made its internet-based, therapist-assisted cognitive behavioural therapy offering free as a complement to what provinces are offering and introduced a virtual care platform as an option for clients. All three supports saw significant uptake from plan members, particularly young employees and women.

Read: 67% of working Canadians would use virtual tools for mental health: survey

Gaudry recommended employers develop a communications strategy to improve employee awareness of the resources they already have available to them. 

She also suggested employers review their benefits plan, wellness programs, ancillary services and workplace policies to determine what they collectively tell employees. “Putting them all together, does it tell your employees that you care about their health and well-being and that you want to create an environment that supports their mental health as opposed to hinder it?” 

The review presents an opportunity for employers to consider what they could be doing differently, she said, such as reallocating their benefits and wellness investment or adding new mental-health providers or virtual solutions.  

“All of these are important steps to add support for plan members and a way for employers to clearly demonstrate to their employees that they’re the type of employer that they want to work with.”

Read more coverage of the 2021 Mental Health Summit.