Award winners discuss paths to improving employees’ well-being

These days, peace of mind is hard to come by, but the employers at the 2018 Workplace Benefits Awards roundtable centred their discussion around the many ways they can positively contribute towards their workforces’ mental, physical and financial health, particularly when it comes to absenteeism and improving return-to-work processes.

“We know that if people are distracted with mental-health issues or financial stress, they’re not going to be present at work,” said Carey Uyeda, compensation and benefits manager at Niagara Casinos, during the roundtable in Toronto on Oct. 11.

But personal issues aren’t the only ones that employees deal with, especially in certain types of work, he added. “One of our initiatives was working with table games dealers,” said Uyeda. “We looked at some of the language we would see.”

Read: Action on financial wellness nabs Niagara Casinos award win

Dealers at Niagara Casinos are often faced with an emotional gambler, so addressing how customer behaviour can cause stress to workers is important for the organization, he said, noting dealers can’t simply diffuse a contentious situation by leaving the table.

But even the everyday realities of living in a city can cause workers to bring tension into the workplace, noted Scott Heard, director of sales and service for the central region at Green Shield Canada. Toronto, in particular, is notorious for its terrible commute, he said. “We’ve got our folks arriving to work extremely stressed before they’ve even had their coffee and then we’re asking them for top-shelf performance?”

Christine van Staden, regional vice-president for the Toronto office at the Great-West Life Assurance Co., agreed that today’s workforce is facing many different dynamics. “Take all of that and then add the stress of elderly relatives that you’re responsible for helping or children, who may be going through a physical or mental issue of their own.”

Creating an environment where people feel both stable and valued was a key driver for many of the roundtable’s participants, who were also among the finalists in this year’s awards. Blair Richards, chief executive officer of the Halifax Port ILA/HEA pension plan described how presenteeism was rampant for years at the organization as its employees felt entirely replaceable. “There was no empathy or sympathy for the employee that wasn’t there because they didn’t feel valuable. So for that reason, presenteeism was a much bigger problem than absenteeism,” he said.

Read: Town of Richmond Hill awarded for strategic health approach

In managing absenteeism, activating the relationship between managers and employees is the first step towards making improvements, said Nancy Marchese, manager of employee health, safety and benefits at the Town of Richmond Hill. “They were really in the dark and they also felt like things like return to work was really HR’s responsibility.”

Helping managers understand they should be involved and teaching them how to support individuals was key to bringing down the organization’s average annual days of absence, from nine to 6.5, she said.

Addressing the most obvious causes of absenteeism was also key for Ontario Power Generation when it zeroed in on two of the more common health problems faced by its workers — mental-health issues and musculoskeletal ailments. “We had a look at our processes and examined what we could do to align better with best practices,” said Tanya Hickey, the company’s senior manager for health and safety strategies.

Read: OPG wins absence management award for efforts to shift workplace culture

While the entire process took a year to complete, the company said mental health-related absences dropped dramatically. “It was a rough ride, but I believe it was very fruitful by the end,” said Tanya. Working together with employees through the disability management process, as well as closely with other stakeholders such as unions, created a collaborative environment, where fewer claims turned into grievances, she added.

Marc-Andre Malboeuf, vice-president at the human resources centre of expertise at Desjardins, said his company’s latest initiatives to tackle mental health addressed sleep disorders, which it identified as a factor impacting absenteeism and presenteeism. Using a pilot project with 5,000 employees, the company was able to demonstrate a clear return on investment of two-to-one in terms of improvements measured in absenteeism, he said.

Staples Canada is addressing another barrier keeping some employees from feeling valued. Kate Tilsley, the company’s senior director of total rewards and human resource information system, said a stigma exists around making special accommodations for workers with certain conditions, especially within return-to-work scenarios.

For example, there’s a limited number of sedentary jobs within its retail environment, but that doesn’t mean stores shouldn’t try to make small changes to help employees who have trouble standing for long periods for various reasons, she said. Simply putting that person on cashier duty and providing them with a stool is one solution, but there’s still tension surrounding the idea. ”There’s a bit of a stigma around . . . that it’s bad customer service to have a stool at cash. So we’re trying to get people to understand that it’s really important to get people back to work and someone could be very productive if we’re able to help them with this one thing.”

Read: Staples Canada earns mental-health award for focus on early prevention

Other return-to-work scenarios can be even more complex. During the roundtable, Rosemary Hatnay, director of pensions and benefits at Scotiabank, spoke about the organization’s robust process of support for employees considering gender reassignment surgery. For one team member who did make the transition, the bank guided and supported her colleagues to help make the process as smooth as possible.

“The team received a lot of sensitivity training and counselling on what to expect . . . right down to the systems to make sure the right pronouns were used, your pension statement, your benefit card, everything had to reflect the change,” said Hatnay. “And it was a full team — including employee relations as well — effort to support this one employee.”

One employee’s positive experience can serve as an example to others who may be concerned about the ramifications of discussing such a personal journey in the workplace, said Hatnay. “If everyone else sees how well it was handled, this can have a ripple effect of people feeling more supported,” added Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell Ltd.

Financial well-being is also a major issue weighing on Canadians’ minds. That’s why the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology pension plan is actively trying to expand its offerings to private sector and part-time workers who are losing access to defined benefit pensions. ”Our research shows that 95 per cent of Canadians want the features of DB, but no [chief financial officer] or [chief executive officer] in this environment would do that,” said Derek Dobson, chief executive officer of the CAAT. “We offer a risk-free product to CFOs and they love us so far.”

Read: CAAT wins pension performance award for membership growth strategy

However, Martha Callum, senior director of total rewards at Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada, highlighted a different way employers can ensure employees have peace of mind about their retirement savings. The company recently went through a major restructuring of its pension plan, closing its defined benefit offering and moving employees from more than 30 different collective agreements all into the same defined contribution plan.

It was paramount to communicate the move so that employees would be able to transition smoothly and without confusion into the new option, Callum noted. “I had employees in DB and that was closed. I had DC employees with no employee contributions,” she said. Leveraging direct managers helped get the message out to employees and ensures that workers took action to enrol, she added.

Read more about all the winners of the 2018 Workplace Benefits Awards on and in Benefits Canada‘s upcoming December issue.