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Employees were increasingly using digital mental-health-care options for years, but the coronavirus pandemic shifted the trend into high gear.

Since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic almost one year ago on March 11, 2020, providing some health-care virtually instead of in-person has become the norm. By the end of March 2020, all Canadian provinces and territories had declared some form of a state of emergency and lockdowns, leading both plan sponsors and members scrambling to find virtual ways to meet increased demand for mental-health care.

Read: Canadian workers prioritizing mental, physical well-being during pandemic: report

“Throughout COVID, people started to use digital as an alternative to traditional in-person care, but what we didn’t expect is to see people who would not have used traditional therapy or counselling, now engaging in virtual-care solutions,” says Nigel Branker, president of health and productivity solutions and executive vice-president of Morneau Shepell Ltd.

Indeed, Branker says the consultancy’s internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy products were used by 30,000 Canadians in 2020, compared to a mere 1,000 in 2019. And he expects the number to further surge to between 60,000 and 100,000 in 2021. He says a vast majority of those who used the online mental-health services hadn’t been as engaged in a more traditional means of counselling or support.

A recent report by Canada Health Infoway and Environics Research noted eight in 10 of the Canadians they surveyed, who used health technology in the past year, reported they were better able to manage their health and had a better quality of life. As well, nearly seven in 10 respondents who sought medical assistance during the pandemic did so with a virtual visit.

In addition, Branker says data from Morneau Shepell’s monthly mental-health index shows the portion of the Canadian population in crisis has almost tripled since the start of the pandemic, and many employers are responding to this need by embracing virtual health-care solutions to help their employees weather the mental-health storm. But in an already saturated marketplace, how can employers be sure they’re choosing the right app for their employees?

Read: Managing the employee mental-health tsunami

According to Branker, employers should first consider the problem they’re trying to solve — whether it’s lost productivity, escalating drug costs or lost time off — and then look at the efficacy or outcomes produced by the app. But, he says, organizations also need to remove barriers that may prevent their employees from using the app, such as cost, access and stigma.

“Employers are starting to realize that one size does not fit all. From a wellness perspective, you’re probably looking at a larger segment of your population that has less of a barrier over access, so it’s thinking more about platform or what other content is on there that will drive utilization,” says Branker. “As you move downstream to a smaller set of the population that needs more pronounced clinical care, that’s when you need to think more carefully about removing some of these big barriers.”

He says subsequent polling has shown despite a trend toward more usage of digital apps, the portion of the population that has seen a decline in their mental health and well-being is still struggling and certain behavioural patterns may coincide with the decline. Some individuals may become more withdrawn and less likely to reach out for help, leading them to cope in harmful ways. “Recognizing [this] group needs more pronounced support in terms of making these apps available is something that we’ve learned over the back half of the past year.”

This is the first part of a series of articles running this month that’s diving deep into how the benefits, pensions and institutional investment industries have changed in the year since a global pandemic was declared.

Read the second part here: One year later: Why employers should create ‘water-cooler’ moments for employees amid the pandemic

Read the third story in the series here: One year later: Institutional investors looking beyond pandemic

Read the fourth story here: One year later: The AIMCo, Caisse and OPTrust on lessons learned during the pandemic