As the second anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic approaches, Canadian employers are leveraging all the tools in their health and wellness toolbox to stave off employee burnout and a looming spike in disability leaves.

Employers are still investing in virtual health-care supports in a bid to help employees manage burnout and other adverse effects of the ongoing public health crisis, says Kim Siddall, vice-president of enterprise consulting for the west at People Corporation Inc.

They’re also finding creative ways to use support tools to alleviate pressure on employees, she adds. From offering enhanced time off to expanding coverage under their wellness accounts, employers are doing everything they can to make life a little easier for workers during these trying times.

Read: Employers leveraging benefits, flexibility to prevent pandemic surge in disability claims

Media Profile is one company that’s beefing up its employee well-being offerings. A new benefit, introduced on Jan. 1, 2022, allows staff to work anywhere in the world for one month and provides full-time employees with $3,000 to use toward the cost of relocating. To qualify for the benefit, employees must be with the company for at least six months and, while they’re away, their work hours must fall within the eastern standard time zone. Since the benefit took effect, employees have used it to relocate to Florida and Alberta and more are planning to travel to California and Costa Rica.

Alison King, the public relations firm’s chief executive officer, says the benefit was introduced because she was experiencing burnout as a result of the shift to remote working. She says it was also evident that the long days of back-to-back video-conferencing calls were taking a toll on employees.

Read: How will the potential work-from-anywhere boom post-pandemic impact benefits plans?

Indeed, a third (34 per cent) of Canadian employers have already seen an increase in disability claims in 2021, compared to 2019, according to a recent survey by LifeWorks Inc. “We’ve seen an increase in terms of the severity of mental-health issues . . . and that flows through to disabilities,” says Paula Allen, the organization’s global leader of research and total well-being.

When people are living through adverse times, there’s an increased risk that the experience will have an impact on their mental health, says Allen. However, she points out the subsequent rise in disability numbers may be delayed because, instinctually, people try to manage the issue for as long as they can. And some people who are just starting to seek out care may now be facing long wait times in the community or other challenges to accessing care, she adds.

In addition to the work away benefit, Media Profile’s wellness strategy includes: providing staff with the option to work a four-day work week at a reduced salary; two paid mental-health days off; a $500 health and wellness benefit that employees can use on exercise equipment or a gym membership; and mental-health services for employees and their families through a virtual health-care app and an employee assistance program.

Access to virtual counselling support is extremely important, as it helps to remove barriers to care, says Allen. Employees don’t want a complicated path to reach services, she adds, suggesting that employers invest in a one-stop shop that offers access to a full continuum of care.

Read: 2021 Group Benefits Providers Report: Will the rising tide of virtual health-care offerings lift all boats?

But it’s not enough to just offer these support tools, she says, noting employers must constantly remind employees that these programs are available and accessible whenever they need them.

And as some employers begin the shift back to in-office work, there will be a period of adjustment that’s complicated by the fact that the public-health crisis continues, even as mandates drop, says Siddall. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

This is the third part of a series of articles running this week that will explore how the benefits, pension and institutional investment industries have changed in the two years since the pandemic was declared.