How CAA’s wellness app is evolving during the pandemic

Wellness apps are becoming an increasingly popular perk for Canadian employers to offer employees, particularly as stress continues to soar as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.

CAA Club Group was ahead of the pack, launching its wellness app company-wide in 2018. However, a wide range of meditation and mindfulness apps are available, so plan sponsors have to do their due diligence when choosing, says Mara Notarfonzo, the organization’s assistant vice-president of compensation and benefits.

She advises employers to set realistic, clearly defined goals and to consider the intent when diving into the sea of meditation and mindfulness apps on the market. 

Read: CAA shares journey to a healthy workplace

Employees at CAA’s call centre had always worked from home, so leadership knew it needed something to provide wellness services to these employees and maintain a social connection with them, she says, noting the wellness app was a way of bridging a diverse group of individuals.

The tool was one of the first used at the onset of the pandemic, says Notarfonzo. The company put a lot of effort into directing people back to the app and saw adoption increase substantially within the first month of the shutdown.

The app is a completely holistic experience, rather than being focused solely on meditation and mindfulness. CAA leadership also uses it to disseminate announcements and notifications, she says. In addition, employees can post pictures, share stories and their colleagues can comment on or like their posts. And the company uses it for mindfulness challenges, driven by human resources’ wellness team or by wellness champions for specific initiatives they want to do with their departments or with their friends.

CAA tracks the data analytics behind registration and utilization for all individual initiatives. “We’re big on measuring the value of the programs that we deliver because there’s an investment in everything,” says Notarfonzo.

Read: Mental health firmly in the spotlight due to impacts of coronavirus, says report

The most successful challenges so far are yoga, meditation and mindful eating, she adds, as they include other aspects of wellness. In fact, employees received push notifications encouraging a mindful activity afterwards, like identifying how they felt on and off the mat in the yoga challenge.

“Similar to how you operationalize an offer for other wellness programs, you have to continue to nurture it in different ways to keep it fresh and exciting.” 

A range of other companies, including Eckler Ltd., KMPG Canada, and Starbucks Canada are among those promoting or offering apps to their employees in recent years. Eckler has suggested various free apps to their employees to help with stress relief, says Kelly Sparkes, the organization’s senior group benefits consultant.

Despite meditation and mindfulness apps becoming an increasingly popular employee benefit, science has yet to catch up to the meteoric rise of these online tools.

Read: Plan sponsors should tread carefully when mulling mental-health apps 

Dr. David Gratzer, a psychiatrist and physician at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, only recommends certain apps. “Some of these apps, particularly those developed by Veterans Affairs, are thoughtfully done and based in evidence,” he says, noting many of his patients have used apps and have found them to be helpful.

A few apps have been evaluated and have been shown to be useful, he says, though he notes some may have no basis in medical literature, either because they were recently developed or they don’t actually have much utility and may just be marketed well.

“My metric of an intervention is if somebody feels better. If somebody is developing an app for a for-profit company, their metric might be that people will go to the app and stay on the app for a long time.”

Dr. Gratzer also stresses the importance of distinguishing between wellness apps and mental-health apps designed specifically for clinically diagnosed mental-health issues such as depression, anxiety or serious insomnia. “I would suggest that before recommending an app, it needs to be thoughtfully done as part of a larger mental-health strategy.” 

Read: Looking to create a mental-health strategy? Ask your employees first

Employers provide these resources as part of a menu of options, but it’s more complicated than just going to the app store, typing in depression and recommending the top four hits, he adds, cautioning employers to consider privacy concerns.

“An app might look good to you, but you need to search it out and understand it before recommending it to your employees.”