On May 21, Benefits Canada hosted a webinar to explore the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on chronic disease in the workplace, as well as how virtual solutions can support employee health through this unprecedented time.

All employers are currently facing the same concerns, said Marie-Josée Le Blanc, a partner at Mercer, during the webinar. Pointing to the 2019 Sanofi Canada health-care survey, she noted 82 per cent of plan sponsors acknowledged they need to better support members with chronic conditions. This figure was further supported by research published in February 2020 by Mercer, which found 95 per cent of employers said they want to invest as much, if not more, in supporting employees’ well-being.

The Mercer research also indicated plan members felt poorly supported despite their access to a benefits plan, she added. “So when employees are saying, ‘I don’t get the support I need to manage my chronic disease condition,’ clearly they’re expecting more out of their coverage.”

Read: What are the top chronic diseases in the workplace?

The pandemic has caused an increase in stress due to changes in daily routine, which affects the progress of some employees’ health goals, said Vanessa Churchill, a registered nurse at the Specialty Health Network, also speaking during the webinar. “Members have mentioned how useful virtual-care platforms have been during the crisis because talking to someone outside their personal circle about new stressors in their lives has helped manage the associated anxiety.”

Mercer’s research also found 39 per cent of Canadian employees are eager to use virtual-health solutions and 40 per cent said they’d like to learn more, noted Le Blanc. “With coronavirus, we expect this 40 per cent is now comfortable with technology, meaning up to 80 per cent of the workforce is keen on using digital health tools.”

The pillars of well-being — physical, mental, financial and social — are intertwined, she added, and employees are struggling because it’s tough to find all four solutions, combine them and still provide an adequate experience. “Providing 24/7 access, on any device, from the convenience of one’s home, is fundamental to supporting plan members’ well-being.”

On the pharmacy side, certain patterns have developed in light of the coronavirus, according to Mark Rolnick, vice-president of Health Solutions by Shoppers Drug Mart, noting mental-health claims are increasing, while other chronic diseases, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, have remained stable. “Given the extreme closures in certain industries, [mental health] has certainly impacted group benefits.”

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

While chronic disease hasn’t fallen by the wayside, it isn’t the current priority, said Ryan Weiss, vice-president of group customer product and experience at Canada Life Assurance Co. However, he added, as people begin defining the new normal, the focus on chronic conditions will resurface, with employer attention turning to solving some of the bigger, long-term issues.

Acute care has paved the way for virtual delivery, said Weiss, noting mental health will be the next frontier, with chronic disease following close behind. “While digital-health solutions are going to stretch dollars organizations are struggling to find, these tools are actually more cost-effective, making them attractive beyond the results they have.”

After major catastrophes, there’s an echo, noted Le Blanc, which includes mental-health claims because, during the pandemic, emotions are building up and these will have an impact. “My advice to plan sponsors is to start engaging employees, give them access to tools to try to mitigate the effects of this impending echo. Now is the time to act if we want to prevent disabilities that will incur months from now.”

Disability claims are tightly linked to economic conditions, added Weiss. As employees realize the coronavirus is a marathon, not a sprint, anxiety will start to creep up, causing disability claims to escalate. “As the economy begins to stabilize, we’ll start to see trickle down effects.”

Read: 10 key factors for ensuring the success of a digital therapy program

Rolnick noted family physicians haven’t had the time to truly engage in mental-health counselling and support for patients who need it. While getting a prescription is often a quick process, he added, lead times and the accompanying costs to see a mental-health professional are significant.

Forty per cent of employees said they’d have greater confidence in virtual-health platforms if the recommendations come from their employers, said Le Blanc, noting they expect plan sponsors to triage good solutions. However, simply providing access doesn’t solve the issue, it needs to be supported by a comprehensive wellness strategy. “To see changes in behaviour, plan member engagement needs to remain top of mind. . . . Rather than spending time on finding the right app and vendor, [employers] should spend their time on how to engage employees.”

Return-to-work protocols will vary by organization and by an employee’s ability and need to come into the office, said Weiss, noting some companies are lenient with individual concerns and remote working while others aren’t. “Every organization will have to look at its own accommodation policies. Providing virtual-care supports and making them available are the best things a company can do to help support employees en masse.”

Find out what you missed by accessing the full webinar here.