Tackling stigma key to Co-operators’ award-winning mental-health efforts

The Co-operators Group Ltd.’s revamped mental-health program, including an online forum for employees, was central to its win in the category at Benefits Canada’s 2017 Workplace Benefits Awards in Toronto on Oct. 12.

Last year, the company launched a mental-health strategy to both support employees struggling with psychological problems and to promote good mental health through a positive working environment. A key aspect of the strategy is breaking down stigma, in large part through the company’s Yammer website. The human resources team discusses coping strategies, but more importantly, employees share their own experiences with mental-health problems. 

Read: Sounding Board: Management style, employee expectations key to supporting mental health

Several employees have shared their own experiences with mental illness on Yammer, and nearly 500 staff members have posted articles and comments on mental-health threads. “This has been one of our most successful stigma reduction strategies,” says Maureen Gillespie, the company’s vice-president of human resources.

The Co-operators has also overhauled its return-to-work process to address staff concerns about reintegrating into the team, what to say on their first day back and dealing with workplace issues that may have led them to go on mental-health leave in the first place. Changes include offering return-to-work counselling earlier on in the leave process, meetings with the case manager and their supervisor before coming back and communication tips for team leaders.

Read: Millennials, managers more likely to report mental-health struggles

Furthermore, the company has made changes to its terminology around mental health. “Words are very important,” says Gillespie, noting the company has rebranded stress leave as medical leave. “This language is very stigmatizing because it presumes that the person is weak and unable to handle stress. We all experience stress daily, so this language can lead to negative reactions from co-workers who feel they are also experiencing stress at work. Mental-health leaves should be considered the same as any other leave caused by a physical illness.”

The Co-operators has also changed some employees’ titles —  wellness and disability management specialists became employee health and wellness specialists — to reinforce the fact that they’re supporting people in getting well as opposed to simply managing disabilities.

The mental-health effort is just the beginning, and the company acknowledges it will take some time to see concrete results. Even then, it’ll be hard to measure factors like changes in stigma. However, just a year into the program, employees are actively engaging with mental-health material on the company’s intranet site, and staff comments suggest they’re aware and appreciative of the culture shift.

A full list of the 2017 Workplace Benefits Awards’ winners is available here. BenefitsCanada.com will feature more winners throughout the week.