In 2020’s Workplace Benefits Awards, the finalists in the mental-health category have a key feature in common — their passion for promoting and supporting employee well-being is grounded in leadership buy-in, regular and empathetic communications and a focus on holistic health.

Following a year when, for better or worse, mental health was thrust even further into the spotlight, Benefits Canada is highlighting all five finalists by sharing the history behind their mental-health strategies, how they’ve evolved during the coronavirus pandemic and what makes their organizations stand out on employee well-being.

3M
Five years ago, 3M Canada launched its mental-health strategy by creating a training course for supervisors to help them recognize signs and symptoms and to destigmatize the topic.

“From there, we’ve just built upon that every year and put on all-employee training,” says Jeff Finley, the organization’s total rewards manager, noting 3M has also made Calm, a sleep and meditation app, available to employees and increased the number of counsellors at its facilities.

Read: Award finalists talk employee engagement, return on investment

A lot of the developments grew out of the company’s total health assessment questionnaire, says benefits specialist Jackie McLennan. “It’s voluntary, however, we do get a lot of feedback and commentary from employees each year on things that we could do to provide our employees with some resources and tools.”

3M also continuously promotes its mental-health strategy to remind employees what’s available, including sending out infographics on a monthly basis that aim to drive the message home. When staff seek out an infographic and read it, whether it’s on anxiety, depression or addiction — or if they use the Calm app — they gain points that are converted into dollars to be used in their wellness accounts.

By the numbers

28% of Canadian employers said they’ve added elements to their existing mental-health benefits in response to the pandemic, while 24% said they’re considering doing so.

10% have added virtual mental-health benefits, while 15% are considering the option.

4% have relaxed or removed eligibility requirements or reduced or eliminated cost-sharing for these benefits.

Source: International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey, July 2020

“We really encourage our employees to use all of these resources — and if you do, you’re tracked anonymously and awarded with additional points at the end of the year,” says Finley.

In 2020, 3M’s Abilities First committee hosted a live discussion where two employees who’d experienced a mental-health issue shared their stories, with a counsellor available for a Q&A afterwards. “Our employees tend to like those face-to-face interactions and I think it was really good to have those employees share their stories,” says McLennan. “It allowed people to think they weren’t all alone. That was a great success we had just recently.”

During the pandemic, the organization also sent out weekly information emails to all employees and hosted online challenges to keep them involved, she adds. “We’re finding it hard to keep everyone connected, of course, because most people are working from home. And this was a good way to keep that connection going.”

In addition, the company’s president hosted biweekly town halls, sharing the status of the business and how it was keeping staff safe. “She would also take an item that Jackie presented and emphasized and promoted that, whether it was the Calm app or [online cognitive behavioural therapy] or some other aspect,” says Finley. “She would continue to promote employee health and mental health throughout this pandemic. Our president has been a tremendous advocate and supporter of our wellness programs through these months.”

Cenovus Energy
Cenovus Energy has also taken significant steps to reduce the stigma around mental illness and provide employees with resources to help support themselves and their families.

However, in 2019, the Calgary-based oil and natural gas company recognized it needed to provide more tangible support for the actual treatment of mental-health issues. In Fall 2019, it increased its psychology benefit maximum, from $1,000 to $6,000 for its basic plan and $1,500 to $10,000 for its enhanced plan.

Read: Award finalists talk managing employee stress, wellness and productivity amid pandemic

“As far as metrics go, we noticed a huge increase in our utilization in the first year,” says Cassandra Twarowski Campbell, benefits specialist at Cenovus Energy. “It increased by 94 per cent, which for us just validates the need for genuine coverage in this area to assist and support employees.”

The organization reached out to the Alberta Psychology Association to find out the costs of treating simple mental-health issues. Many disorders, such as anxiety or depression, require an average of 20 sessions of CBT, she says. “So we built our mental-health strategy and our coverage limits around making sure we were offering a full availability for treatment based on evidence-based treatment plans.”

Cenovus Energy also planned to introduce virtual health care at the end of 2020, but expedited the roll-out in April so staff had another resource to use in the first phase of the pandemic. By November 2020, 38 per cent of employees had registered to use the service. “We are having, on average, 100 appointments going through our virtual health care per month,” says Twarowski Campbell.

Finalists figures

31%
The percentage decrease in STD incidences for mental health between 2013 and 2019 at 3M Canada

$10,000
Cenovus Energy’s annual psychology coverage per employee

2,669
The number of referrals the Health Benefit Trust of Alberta’s program had in April 2020, three years after it was launched

The pandemic highlighted how important it is to have measures in place in a timely matter, she adds. “It definitely highlighted the need for a flexible strategy. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution and we needed to think beyond our current measures and fill the gaps in other areas.”

Ultimately, one of the organization’s key values is safety. In particular, since it’s an oil and gas company, Cenovus Energy has physical safety measures in place, but also aims to cover psychological safety. “That’s something we have worked on and we’ll continue to ensure we have in our organization.”

Health Benefit Trust of Alberta
In 2016, the Health Benefit Trust of Alberta faced some challenges with the plan and subsequently took a deeper dive into its data to explore what was going on beneath the claims.

As a result, it identified mental health as a key priority, working internally with Alberta Health Services to introduce Canada’s national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace and create a stronger support model for employees who were accessing its short- and long-term disability programs.

“It was drawn out of a need to manage some challenges, but then quickly evolved into a model of support, for the employees and the organization,” says Shelley Russell, the trust’s manager of health program strategy.

Read: How the Health Benefit Trust of Alberta redesigned its mental-health program

Through various partnerships, the Health Benefit Trust of Alberta introduced several supports and services, such as fast-tracked access to a psychiatrist or a mental-health consultant and access to pharmacogenetics.

Since the vast majority of plan members are providing frontline health-care services in Alberta, they’re in the eye of the storm during the pandemic. “We’re actually evolving our programs daily now in response to what we’re seeing and what we’re sensing is going on out in the organization,” she says.

The trust is also broadening its stakeholder network by partnering with unions, labour relations and employee relations to ensure it has a more current view of the employee experience. In addition, it has evolved its STD program to include “pandemic language,” so all plan members are supported through the 14-day isolation process if they’ve been exposed to the virus; introduced psychologists to its mental-health program to provide additional levels of support; added a new level of mental-health triage; and is looking at introducing virtual counselling support.

“We’re trying to negotiate some pricing around that to make it more affordable for members, so they can access it through their existing benefits programs on the health side [and] they feel supported from a financial perspective and an access perspective,” says Russell.

The mental-health strategy’s triage concept is its most unique element, she adds. “It’s specific to mental-health claims, so it’s really that access piece to treatment because we want to maximize the ability to support that person as quickly as possible . . . . We feel that has shown us the most return in terms of supporting people . . . [and] trying to get our people triaged as quickly as possible has probably given us our biggest bang for our buck.”

Scotiabank
A few years ago, Scotiabank’s mental-health support was mainly focused on paramedical benefits and an employee assistance program. But like many other employers, it was seeing a high incidence of mental-health claims.

So the bank moved its mental-health support out of the paramedicals category, introducing separate mental-health coverage of $3,000 a year for all employees and their eligible dependants. “That was the first step and we immediately saw a good uptake in that, so clearly it was something that was in demand,” says Ayman Alvi, director of global benefits at Scotiabank.

Read: Scotiabank awarded for adapting benefits in face of coronavirus

The next piece was expanding the types of providers that were covered to include family and marriage counselling, social workers and psychologists, to name a few. Last year, the bank introduced online CBT, enhanced the amount in its well-being account and fundamentally changed its approach to mental health, says Alvi. “We’re trying to look at it in a much more integrated manner, because there are so many different factors that affect people’s mental well-being. It’s not something you can look at in isolation.”

With this holistic approach, Scotiabank is looking at all of the pillars of well-being — physical, financial, mental and social — and recognizing they all affect employees’ mental well-being. “It’s common that financial stress is one of the main factors leading mental-health concerns, so we’ve tried to tie those pieces together to provide additional support to employees and to help them try to be as well as they can in all aspects of their life,” says Alvi.

While leadership buy-in has always been an important part of the organization’s mental-health strategy, that focus has become even more critical during the pandemic, he adds, noting the bank includes discussions about mental health at its numerous town halls.

Key takeaways

• Across all five employers, leadership buy-in — and often, direct participation from the company president or CEO — is a key part of the mental-health strategy.

• Successful mental-health programs take a holistic approach to employee well-being, considering physical, financial, social and mental health.

• During the pandemic, employers have focused on evolving their approach to mental health, recognizing there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for everyone.

During the pandemic, everyone’s day-to-day stresses and anxieties have become much more compounded than they were before, he notes. “It’s a new situation for everyone, but it’s also new for people who perhaps haven’t struggled before . . . . Having that support for those people, in particular, who are experiencing something new and different, that’s so critical because you want to try to address that and get in front of it before it becomes a bigger issue.”

The WSIB
The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board officially introduced its mental-health strategy in 2016.

Prior to roll-out, it made sure the strategy was endorsed and championed by leadership, including its chief executive officer and president who also acted as an ambassador as the strategy evolved.

“We combined our mental-health strategy with our wellness piece because they go hand in hand,” says Zabina Meru, the WSIB’s mental-health implementation advisor. “From a mental-health perspective, we were looking at the 13 workplace factors, whereas for the wellness piece, we look at the eight dimensions of wellness.”

Across the entire strategy, the organization’s pillars include education and skills, prevention and promotion and support and resources. Under the former, the organization sends out a wellness ambassador newsletter and a leadership newsletter on a monthly basis, features articles on its company intranet and offers a variety of mental-health training opportunities to employees.

“We wanted to make sure the leaders have bought into the mental-health strategy [and] understand mental health as a foundation and are able to address mental-health issues within their teams,” says Meru, noting the training has been adjusted to the pandemic, including a component on managing a team in a virtual environment.

Read: Employee mental health, productivity remain low amid pandemic

The WSIB’s prevention and promotion pillar features awareness programming throughout the year. Recently, it launched the Mental Health Association’s Not Myself Today campaign. “We also have a wellness ambassador network in each office . . . who are basically promoting our various initiatives within their offices,” she says. “They send out emails and promote everything so we can try to get as much participation as possible.”

The WSIB’s support and resources include a peer support program. “They are not trained to provide any counselling service; they’re there to lend a supportive ear,” says Meru. “It’s confidential and empathetic social and emotional support for people who may be going through something or may be feeling down.”

During the pandemic, the organization has seen a significant increase in attendance for all of its mental-health programming and initiatives. By the end of April, it had moved its training and drop-in meditation sessions to virtual platforms and introduced 15-minute workouts and stretch breaks via Microsoft Teams. It also created a coronavirus self-care tool kit on its intranet page.

“We’ve made sure that we’re trying to hit all the dimensions of wellness as we move along this working-from-home journey,” says Meru.

The WSIB looks at mental health through a very holistic lens. “Using the 13 psychological factors and the eight dimensions of wellness has been a great framework for looking at it in that big picture lens to make sure we’re not just looking at mental health on its own.”

Jennifer Paterson is the editor (on leave) of Benefits Canada.