After years of viewing diversity, equity and inclusion as a side-of-the-desk issue, Canadian employers are increasingly considering it a top priority and integrating their organizational DEI goals into their benefits plans.

While employers have been introducing DEI initiatives for years, incorporating these goals into benefits plans had been neglected, according to multiple panellists during Benefits Canada’s second annual Leadership in DEI webinar in mid-July.

But employers are broadening their focuses, prompted by the enormous strain plan members faced during the coronavirus pandemic and the events from the past few years highlighting the impact of systemic racism and inequities.

Read: Scotiabank supporting employee well-being by aligning benefits offerings across global markets

Diverse employees highly value their benefits plans, but the plans aren’t meeting their needs, according to a 2022 survey by Sun Life Financial Inc.

In particular, it found diverse groups are interested in alternative medicines and healing practices; fertility, adoption and other family-building products; gender affirmation; and virtual care, said Krista Hogan, director of product and solutions at Sun Life, noting these findings have influenced the insurer’s benefits offerings. It also added enhanced search criteria to its provider search tool to help connect Indigenous plan members with traditional healing practices like smudging and is focusing on building out its virtual mental-health services.

ULCNI Aviation training company CAE Inc. has incorporated its DEI goals into its benefits plan by adding a gender affirmation benefit and providing flexible dollars each year that employees can put towards a variety of services, including Indigenous health services, said Pascale Alpha, the company’s chief DEI officer.

Pamela Ramnarain, director of human resources business partner and DEI initiatives at Scotiabank, said the bank is aligning its benefits with a global inclusive standard of care strategy that will be rolled out to the majority of countries it operates in by 2030. The initial focus is on addressing health gaps for LGBTQ2S+ employees and women, including through mental health and women’s health benefits, gender affirmation coverage, an expansion of same-sex partner coverage globally and standard parental leave. The bank also offers five paid days of leave for traditional Indigenous practices, including cultural events.

Read: Back to basics on menopause support

Providing support and education around menopause is becoming a new priority for both plan sponsors and insurance companies, said Hogan.

According to a 2023 research paper by Sun Life, three-quarters of women experience menopausal symptoms that interfere with their daily lives and 10 per cent of women stopped working because their symptoms were too debilitating — something that often occurs at the peak of their careers. A third of women surveyed said their benefits plan didn’t provide enough coverage to meet their needs.

“You can’t create a genuinely inclusive workplace without understanding what potentially half of your population may experience. Integrating menopause education and resources into DEI initiatives will enable employers to support these employees during this potentially challenging phase of life.”

Many solutions already exist within benefits plans, she added, such as boosting paramedical and mental-health maximums and wellness accounts, as well as covering hormone replacement therapy and pharmacogenetics.

CAE’s employee resource group for women in aviation recently hosted an educational session with an expert on menopause, said Alpha, and she’s considering adding a mention of menopause into its flexible working policies.

Read: How employers are using data to integrate DEI into their benefits plans

Panellists also emphasized the importance of accurate data in employers’ DEI journeys, as well as the ability to be open to what that data reveals about the workplace.

Neena Gupta, partner at Gowlings WLG and a former co-chair of the firm’s diversity and inclusion council, encouraged employers to survey employees to learn about the demographic makeup and to learn their views on metrics like inclusion, openness and advancement opportunities.

“You’ve got to be open to the fact that you might actually hear some stuff you don’t want to hear. You might actually hear that, even though you perceive yourself as being a very open and fair workplace, there are people who rightfully or wrongfully do not perceive it to be so.”

Scotiabank runs a global diversity survey that’s always open for employees to opt into, says Ramnarain, noting participants are asked if they’d like to be contacted for other initiatives like focus groups reviewing new programs. It has also hosted nine listening sessions with a third-party vendor, which she said was key to building the bank’s attraction, retention and talent promotion strategy for its capital markets business line.

Good data and insights only come when employees buy in, she added. “This all comes from . . . our employees’ willingness to trust us and trust that we are going the right way. We have to be transparent and open and put actual change in place if employees are willing to share.”

Read: Lack of LGBTQ2S+ inclusivity costing employers, says expert

Since 2018, demographic data has driven CAE’s talent attraction and retention strategy. Many of the company’s roughly 13,000 employees are engineers and flight instructors, which Alpha noted tend to be male-dominated professions.

When it realized only 18 per cent of its employees were women, it implemented recruitment targets for women and a “bias interrupter,” a person who helps to catch biases when leaders are making decisions about their people. As a result, women now make up 23 per cent of CAE’s workforce. A quarter of the company’s vice-presidents are women, up from 15 per cent in 2018. During the pandemic, CAE introduced similar targets for other underrepresented groups.

Sun Life has also relied on data as an insurance company to address biases, said Hogan. The company is currently reviewing its chronic disease management strategy with an eye to the gender health gap to ensure its solutions aren’t being derived from male-dominated research. “We’re starting to peel back the layers and finding the data that really adds that women’s health perspective into those solutions that we’re developing.”    

Setting interim goals and pushing for dedicated resources and DEI specialists is key, said Gupta. Change is often measured in years rather than months, she added, noting employers shouldn’t get discouraged if they don’t see immediate improvements.

At Gowling, the firm went from only employing two people of colour in Gupta’s office when she joined, to being known as a welcoming place for newcomers to Canada and women as a result of changes to its recruitment practices. “Those results didn’t happen at 12 or 24 months, they often take five or six years, but we’ve been keeping at the journey.”

Read: Editorial: Speaking up on DEI must go beyond policies and programs