More than 19 months into the coronavirus pandemic, employers are focusing on enhanced mental-health offerings and streamlined communications for their benefits and pension plans.

During a virtual roundtable on Oct. 14, the 2021 Workplace Benefits Awards finalists discussed the changes brought about by the pandemic and how they’ve adapted their benefits and pensions offerings, while looking ahead to brighter days and further innovations.

An ever-increasing amount of data is helping many plan sponsors adapt their benefits plan to better suit employees. Merlyn Sequeira, director of total rewards at Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., said employee interviews resulted in some key changes to the company’s benefits plan. “Employees wanted more mental health, so we increased the mental-health spend for each member, from $600 to $2,000 per member. . . . We’re [also] moving toward full flex [benefits] for 2022.”

Read: Samsung snags award for health, wellness program for all life stages

Read: Canfor wins award for educating employees on retirement savings

Frederic Bessette, director of total rewards at Canadian Forest Products Ltd., said a consultation with an occupational nurse helped the company narrow the focus of its health and wellness strategy. “It was really useful because we had someone who understood the purpose of certain drugs, but also to look at it holistically. It helped us gear our education and health literacy towards certain things, like mental health. It helped us be more precise in how we organize activities around wellness and well-being.”

Similarly, an analysis of drug plan data by the Ottawa Community Housing Corp. revealed mental health to be the top driver of absenteeism, according to Michael Dimaano, manager of total compensation and human resources policy at the organization.

“Looking at this information, we introduced some enhancements to our health and wellness programs. One was enhancing the offering by making virtual health care more accessible. We also introduced virtual mental-health counselling. We also did some training programs for managers. Managers play a big role in creating a mentally-healthy work environment.”

Read: Who are the winners of the 2021 Workplace Benefits Awards?

These changes to OCH’s benefits program were communicated to employees through a redesigned company intranet, said Dimaano. “One of the biggest challenges is to ensure employees know what’s available to them — if you communicate it properly so they’re aware, absenteeism or drug claims could be minimized. To supplement the redesign, we’ve also engaged our managers. Managers are allies in terms of communicating [benefits] to employees.”

Felicia Blackburn, director of pension, benefits and wellness at IGM Financial, said a disconnect between the rise in mental-health disability claims and decreased utilization of paramedical benefits and drugs used for mental health provided the company with “one piece of the puzzle” in planning its mental-health strategy. “[We’re] making business cases for value-added new offerings like specialized treatment within our [employee assistance program] and virtual care. We did that to also inform how we communicate our mental-health support to employees.”

Plan sponsors are also increasingly tying diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to their benefits offerings, according to the roundtable. Bronwyn Ott, Unilever Canada’s well-being, equity, diversity and inclusion leader, said the company is adding gender affirmation coverage in its next annual benefits enrolment. “We look at everything through a very integrated lens and we look at benefits and wellness and DEI together. We want to make sure people are supported regardless of their lifestyle.”

Read: Unilever wins award for expansive approach to DEI amid pandemic

Read: Unilever awarded for holistic approach to supporting employees amid pandemic

As more specialty and high-cost drugs appear on the market, plan sponsors are also paying more attention to prior authorization. Dana Nevison, director of benefits and rewards at MNP LLP, said prior authorization provides the consulting firm with “a safety net for risk mitigation.

“We don’t want to be involved, as an employer, in deciding whether someone gets a drug or not. We want it to be disease state-based and that specific plan member’s situation. . . . We’ve seen a significant increase in team member experience being positive and that resounding feedback about not just being a number.”

MNP’s biosimilars policy takes a two-pronged approach, due to the high number of mergers and acquisitions the company is involved in, she added. “If we bring on a team member who’s brand new and on a biologic drug, we’re not going to interrupt that because the patient experience matters and we wouldn’t want them to be disadvantaged by moving over to us. On the other hand, we do know many of the provinces are reviewing their coverage around biosimilars. We refer to our third-party prior authorization program to help determine what the appropriate drug is and it often takes into consideration biosimilars if treatment hasn’t begun.”

On the pension plan front, financial education is top of mind for Tyler Downey, secretary treasurer at SEIU Healthcare. “One of the major challenges that we’re facing is building up financial literacy within our organization, so they understand that every little bit [they contribute] counts, [that] starting early is important and understanding retirement functions as they relate to the government benefits they’re entitled to and how that impacts how much they can save.”

SEIU is also focusing on accessibility, both for health-care employers that want to offer a retirement savings program as well as for members themselves, he added. “Part of the design of our plan is to make it very easy for employers to join and use it as a recruitment and retention tool. We’ve been working with these employers to help them understand the benefits to their organization and how having a flexible plan could benefit them. . . . Having access to iPads isn’t common [for many of our pension plan members], nor is having the knowledge to navigate the technology. Making [the plan] accessible through various means is part of the challenge we’re beginning to overcome.”

Read: Scotiabank awarded for making pension statements more accessible

Simon Cabral, director of global defined contribution plans at Scotiabank, said the bank is using digital communications to engage employees on their retirement savings as its pension plans move from defined benefit to DC.

“As an employer, we have the responsibility to provide employees with the necessary tools to make appropriate decisions throughout their career. We often say we want our future selves to thank us for decisions made 10 or 20 years ago. What we’ve tried to do is build programs and offer tools in a variety of formats. It’s all digital — gone are the days of someone enrolling in a pension plan reading a 40-page booklet.”

While Scotiabank wasn’t immune to the market downturn in March 2020, it was able to use the pandemic to push its pension messaging about the strength of the bank and long-term investment horizons, said Cabral. “What we’ve seen is our employees really benefited from sticking to that long-term approach and continuing to contribute [to the plan].”

And as plan sponsors look toward a post-pandemic world, the last 19 months have provided plenty of lessons for the future. Melodie Mason, vice-president of total rewards at CSA Group, said a three-year trend analysis revealed incremental usage of mental-health benefits by CSA employees, but no increase in disability claims, which she described as “a good sign that our employees were able to get treatments and still work in this remote world.

“In early 2021, we did an employee engagement survey, which had a significant mental-health component. Our engagement was the highest we’ve had in years — if not ever — and our mental-health questionnaire came back well above the benchmark and scored very well, with lots of feedback appreciative of all the programs and the reinforcement of those programs throughout the last year and a half.”

Read more about all the winners of the 2021 Workplace Benefits Awards on and in Benefits Canada’s upcoming December issue.