For years, digital offerings played second banana to in-person options for many employers aiming to connect with and support employees. Not anymore. As employers and employees face down year two of the coronavirus pandemic, digital supports have moved from understudy to centre stage.

“The pandemic has changed the environment significantly, as we all know, and what it brought into focus was well-being over anything else,” says David Fellows, senior vice-president of human resources at the Toronto Dominion Bank.

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TD is just one of many employers that rapidly adopted virtual health apps last year to help their employees weather the effects of the pandemic. Employers “were on this path of evolution to get greater adoption of digital apps into use and what 2020 did is it really accelerated that more than we anticipated,” says Nigel Branker, president of health and productivity solutions and executive vice-president of Morneau Shepell Ltd.

According to Branker, the use of these apps isn’t a passing trend. He noted employers are recognizing the appetite among employees for virtual health-care options, and, as the pandemic rages on, digital-health solutions have become much more mainstream and widely adopted.

Although TD was already considering expanding on its virtual employee well-being offerings, the pandemic served as an opportunity for it to speed up those plans. Fellows says approximately 60,000 employees at the bank started working from home following the rapid shift to remote work last March. And in response, the company rolled out three virtual programs designed to make the transition easier for employees who are able to work remotely and to provide a safe, healthy work environment for those who must work on site.

Accessing clinical care

One of the first virtual offerings the bank developed in response to the pandemic was an internal health-screening app designed to help keep colleagues, customers and communities safe. Prior to leaving for work at a TD branch, or a third-party location on bank business, employees must answer a few questions to help them discern whether they exhibit any symptoms of the coronavirus, whether they’ve had any contact with someone who has the coronavirus and whether they should stay at home. Although employees can opt to complete the form either through the app or on a printed form, Fellows says the app has had heavy adoption since its launch and most employees who are still working onsite use it every day.

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In May 2020, the bank also introduced a virtual health-care provision for employees in Canada that’s accessible via computer and mobile devices. Designed as a pilot project, the program offers around the clock access to registered nurses and nurse practitioners for most routine health-care concerns, as well as for a range of services such as filling new and repeat prescriptions, lab requisitions, specialist referrals and nutrition consultations.

The program offers TD’s employees online consultations and diagnoses, minimizing the need for in-person visits, thus helping to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Employees can have their medication delivered anywhere in Canada, including to local pharmacies or their homes, and the program allows staff to assess their cold and flu symptoms to determine whether they should get tested for the coronavirus. Mental-health support is also available and provided by nurse practitioners under the guidance of an in-house psychiatrist.

“When government and health officials were asking everybody to stay at home, and our health-care system was getting strained, we realized it would be really important for our colleagues to have that kind of online access, particularly if they couldn’t get to see their family doctor in person or if they’re in a more rural community,” Fellows says.

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Branker believes there’s a wide swath of people interested in, or are more comfortable with, using digital apps, as he says getting access to support or trying to do it during core working hours is difficult for many. Morneau Shepell’s internal data shows it’s easier for someone to access these health-care services after they’ve attended to their work and personal obligations, such as at night after putting their kids to bed. The convenience of on-demand clinical care is a motivator and people will continue to use this modality because of that convenience, says Branker.

Case in point: Fellows says TD’s online medical services have proven both practical and popular, with the bank consistently seeing a satisfaction rate of over 90 per cent with the services among its employees. The services have been so popular the health-care app was included in the company’s overall benefits package in Canada this year.

Prioritizing well-being

While the bank managed to meet employees health-care needs in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, Fellows says it recognized in the long term it also needs to engage with employees as the coronavirus crisis drags on. So, TD got to work accelerating the launch of its new well-being app developed through its employee assistance program provider. “It really provides an ability for employees to interact and engage with their colleagues on a wide range of services,” notes Fellows. “It’s a way of getting real engagement.”

By the numbers

54% of Canadian employers are set to invest more in digital health solutions in the next five years

42% of employees are interested in apps that help them find a doctor or medical care when and where they need it

36% of employees are interested in telemedicine for simple issues such as a cold
or rash

26% 0f employee respondents are less likely to move jobs if their employer invests in digital health benefits

48% said they’d be more, or much more, confident in digital health and well-being solutions promoted by their employer

Sources: 2020 Mercer Marsh Benefits, Mercer and Oliver Wyman

The well-being app went live in December 2020, as part of the company’s omnichannel strategy to reach employees who prefer to interact in the digital space. Employees in Canada are able to access a wide range of content, including short videos and articles, as well as podcasts and infographics. Via the app, employees can participate in individual well-being challenges, find savings on everyday purchases and unlock more offers by doing assessments, joining challenges and reading or watching content. TD’s employee app also connects staff with on-demand access to health-care professionals such as counsellors, caregiver support, nutritionists, naturopaths, health coaches, as well as other services such as career management support and financial and legal advisors.

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So far the app has gotten rave reviews, with the highest engagement seen in the step and habit-switching challenges, along with the well-being assessment and support resources, including clinically verified content in various formats, such as articles, videos and podcasts.

Offering holistic well-being supports virtually became a key focus for TD due to the pandemic. “The pillars of our well-being strategy are really about creating a culture of care,” says Fellows. “Our aim is to help our people thrive in all aspects of their lives.”

TD has plans to leverage the app in the future to communicate information on a range of issues, including: vaccines, managing the stresses and strain of the ongoing pandemic environment and diversity and inclusion.

“We live in a hyperconnected society . . . through social media, and with all of the various [digital] platforms available for people to use to interact with each other, we recognize that’s become a preference for many people.”

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Fellows says it doesn’t mean TD won’t engage with employees in other more traditional and organic ways. “This is just one of the ways we are choosing to engage with people on their terms and based on their preferences. When we think about our well-being strategy, we see it as multi-dimensional — physical, financial, emotional, mental, social. It’s all about the colleague experience.”

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.