Like a spiky meteorite, when the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year it demolished employer’s best-laid plans and is forcing them to find innovative ways to support, motivate and retain employees.

During a virtual roundtable on Oct. 16, the 2020 Workplace Benefits Awards finalists discussed how they’ve quickly responded to everything from employee mental health to supporting financial wellness to motivating employees during this once-in-a-century crisis.

“We’ve seen from our mental-health index that the population has had a major decline in mental health, high anxiety, depression and lower optimism — really a decline like we’ve never experienced ever before,” said Paula Allen, senior vice-president of research, analytics and innovation at Morneau Shepell Ltd., during the roundtable.

Read: 81% of Canadians say coronavirus is negatively affecting their mental health: survey

“But [for] those employees who said they had employers who supported mental health, their decline was negligible, if they were inconsistent it was a bit worse and if employers didn’t focus on mental health at all, it was almost a crisis state.”

Many of the finalists were already focused on supporting employee mental health well before the global pandemic, with the shutdown accelerating the shift to offering digital options. For example, CAA Club Group rolled out telehealth last year so simply reminded employees of the service in mid-March, said Mara Notarfonzo, assistant vice-president of compensation and benefits for the not-for-profit automobile association.

In reaction to the shutdown, the organization also provided an internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy program, which focuses on helping employees deal with a range of issues from daily stresses to alcohol use disorder. Employees with roles related to retail and travel were hit hard, so the leadership went one step further and helped alleviate a main cause of stress for many.

Read: How to support employees’ mental health during coronavirus

“Our [chief executive officer] said, ‘Do not worry about your financial well-being, we’re in this together — there will be no layoffs,” said Notarfonzo. “Everybody whose job was in travel or retail was redeployed into insurance to give them a new career path. . . . So really quickly we got about 100 people into training and licensing to be insurance agents to put that stress out of their mind.”

Other finalists also said the root cause of stress and anxiety for many employees during these tumultuous time were worries related to the financial chaos wrought by the pandemic.

The Ontario Medical Association had launched a new pension plan in January after extensive consultations. Ultimately, it went ahead with planned communications around the new plan when the coronavirus crisis hit, but it also added communications and support to help its plan members deal with the financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Read: Supporting employees’ workplace health, financial wellness during coronavirus

Since mid-March, Kraft Heinz Canada has been gauging employee sentiment through surveys, with money woes found to be a main concern for its employees, said Tracy Fogale, senior manager of compensation and benefits for the Canadian division of the company.

“One of the things we learned from that feedback was . . . there’s such a connection between financial wellness and overall wellness. There were some employees that were 25 years from retirement, so we really tried to target our communications to demographics [and] not just one type of communication. . . . We took a holistic approach, reminding them to get help with budgeting via our [employee assistance program] provider and focused on financial wellness overall via weekly update meetings with the leadership team plugging overall well-being.”

While Kraft Heinz Canada was already taking a holistic approach to wellness by focusing on the interplay between the mental, physical and financial health of its employees pre-pandemic, the company launched the ‘Live Well’ committee as a response to the crisis. The committee is comprised of volunteers from all levels of the organization who focus on promoting wellness and getting real-time feedback from colleagues.

Read: Majority of benefits plan members agree workplace culture encourages wellness: survey

“The other thing we learned is that people are struggling, not only with work but with work-life balance [but] all of the craziness is also happening at home. So we launched our ‘Work Like an Owner’ platform and, ultimately, what we’re saying to employees is work when you need to — it could be at 5 a.m., it could be at 8 p.m., if you’ve got children at home that need help with schooling or you’ve got elderly parents. Whatever the circumstances may be, we have faith that the job will get done.

“And ‘Live Well’ and ‘Work Like an Owner’ will now be launched globally, so we’ve got great success stories in Canada.”

The fast shift to more white-collar employees working from home in Canada has also resulted in success stories, as well as in growing pains for many employers and employees. While formal video meetings became a staple of most employee’s work days this spring as a way of feeling connected, the meetings often have a stilted quality.

Read: Employers moving to remote work to help ‘flatten the coronavirus curve’

“I don’t think anyone would say they don’t see anyone — if anything, they are on endless video chats — but what’s missing is that organic connection, filling your water bottle and chatting with someone else from a different department,” said Karin Adams, interim senior vice-president and group head of human resources at TMX Group Ltd.

“The way we’ve tackled that is a virtual water cooler where you can post funny videos, share a recipe . . . and create some engagement . . .  to give the feeling of an office environment virtually.”

When a global pandemic was first declared, working from home seemed like a short-term fix but now, with some experts predicting employee’s won’t be back at their cubicles until late 2021, or even 2022, employers are starting to think longer term.

“We made it clear working from home is not necessarily for the future, it’s a reaction to the pandemic,” said Martin Robert, executive vice-president of talent, culture and communications for SSQ Life Insurance Co. “But we are collecting data on productivity and wellness of employees to ask, ‘What will be the new workplace?’ — that’s a company-wide project.

“We will need to [physically] work together at some point, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to have a new balance of being at work and being at home and we have to identify the added value of being at the office. . . . If you work from home, what’s the difference between working for this company and working for [a competitor?] . . So we have to differentiate our culture from our competitors.”

Read more about all the winners of the 2020 Workplace Benefits Awards on and in Benefits Canada’s upcoming December issue.

And a big thank you to all of this year’s Workplace Benefits Awards finalists who joined us for the roundtable discussion:

  • Karin Adams, interim senior vice-president and group head of human resources at TMX Group Ltd.
  • Ayman Alvi, director of global benefits, Scotiabank
  • Hatem Belhi, director, pension, payroll & employee benefits, City of Toronto
  • Dominique Cote, head of employee communications and engagement, TMX Group Ltd.
  • Robin Doobay, senior manager, total rewards, Labatt Breweries of Canada
  • Tracy Fogale, senior manager, compensation & benefits, Kraft Heinz Canada
  • Kayte Frederickson, vice-president, OMA Insurance
  • Laura Glenn, wellness program manager, North America, Ericsson
  • Jackie McLennan, benefits specialist, 3M Canada
  • Zabina Meru, mental-health implementation advisor, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board
  • Mara Notarfonzo, assistant vice-president of compensation and benefits, CAA Club Group
  • Simone Reitzes, vice-president of global pension & benefits, Scotiabank
  • Mureth Rhone, senior manager, benefits and wealth programs, Rogers Communications Inc.
  • Martin Robert, executive vice-president, talent, culture and communications, SSQ Life Insurance Co.
  • Shelley Russell, manager of health program strategy, the Health Benefit Trust of Alberta
  • Cassandra Twarowski Campbell, benefits specialist, Cenovus Energy
  • Nicole Quintal, communications manager, Co-operative Superannuation Society pension plan
  • Cindy Xing, director, total rewards, ABC Technologies Inc.

Read: Which companies are finalists in the 2020 Workplace Benefits Awards?