As Canadian employers deepen their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to increase the representation of historically underrepresented groups among their workforces, they’re also focusing on attracting, retaining and engaging that talent.

These initiatives include placing a greater emphasis on healthy and psychologically safe workplaces and revamping benefits plans to meet a wider range of employee needs and circumstances. It’s a shift that’s been spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic, which highlighted the disparities in access to benefits programs and employment opportunities, said Jennifer Schmidt, partner at Mercer, during a Benefits Canada webinar sponsored by Gallagher, Novo Nordisk and Sun Life.

Read: How employers are integrating DEI into their benefits plans

The DEI acronym may need reforming to include a ‘B’ for belonging, she said. “Ensuring that everyone feels they belong means you have your best ambassadors to grow the diversity of an organization.”

Krista Hogan, Sun Life’s director of product and solutions for group benefits, agreed, highlighting that a sense of belonging is at the very core of DEI. “The aim is to create a place where everyone feels they are valued and they belong as their true self. So without this sense of fundamental belonging and psychological safety within an organization, people will not be their best, most productive selves or realize their full potential at work.”

Vancouver-based law firm Miller Titerle and Co. fosters that sense of belonging by encouraging employees to not only show up as their full selves, but to ensure they’re making the workplace a welcoming space for their colleagues to do the same, said Lou Poskitt, the firm’s director of legal talent and operations. She noted the firm provides feedback on this subject to employees in performance reviews to ensure “a lot of space for curiosity and openness.”

The panel also discussed the connection between DEI and overall mental health and well-being. “Having more conversations around mental health and reducing some of the stigma that was once prevalent around seeking mental-health supports is really critical to this,” said Farzeen Mawji, national practice leader in inclusion and diversity at Gallagher.

Read:  To achieve DEI goals, plan sponsors can start by reviewing benefits plans

Typically, people don’t have issues sharing that they’re going to see their family physician or seeking physiotherapy for an injury, he said, but for some reason, there’s a taboo around speaking about seeking mental-health supports. “That’s all part of our overall well-being, that’s how we experience the world and so the more we can think about how we’re moving to that holistic approach to overall well- being that considers mental health as a vital component, the better off we’re going to be.”

Indeed, employers are recognizing that addressing employee mental health and burnout should be an important part of DEI initiatives, said Schmidt, pointing to the disproportionate financial impact of the pandemic on women, caregivers, low-paid workers and individuals with poor health, as well as the above-average stress levels attributed to women, single people, low-income earners and LGBTQ+ employees.

Broadly, systemic discrimination affecting underrepresented groups “can actually be a matter of life and death [and] it takes a severe physical and emotional toll on the health of individuals,” she said.

Access to digital health tools can help employers advance overall employee well-being and promote discreet access to care, added Schmidt. “If you have diversity, equity and inclusion strategies properly implemented, they have the potential to reduce that stress, which thereby increases the resilience and the belonging to an organization.”

Read: KPMG focuses on employee well-being with first chief mental-health officer

Stephanie Braid, director of inclusion, diversity and equity at KPMG in Canada, said advancing a mentally-healthy culture is part of the firm’s formal DEI strategy. In 2017, the organization introduced a chief mental health officer, who works closely with its DEI, benefits and human resources teams across the firm.

She also noted the firm has had mental-health sessions specifically for underserved communities within the firm, including Black employees and staff who are new immigrants to Canada. “I think that’s been a big key to success for our organization, that from the beginning we’ve really integrated those concepts sooner.”

The focus on DEI and belonging has reached plan sponsors’ benefits plans, said Mawji, noting plan sponsors are introducing inclusive language that acknowledges employees’ multiple gender identities, with the option to identify as gender non-conforming or non-binary or write in another more fitting identity.

Fluor Canada has embedded cultural sensitivity into its benefits plan, giving employees the option to speak with an Indigenous elder or counsellor through the company’s benefits hotline, said Lisa Hari, manager of Indigenous relations and DEI. Indigenous employees can also ask to work with specific elders or counsellors in their home community.

Read: How employers can use benefits offerings to support Indigenous employees

Miller Titerle worked with its benefits provider to create a customizable plan that allows employees to pick and choose the benefits they need, though everyone has an annual mental-health coverage amount, said Poskitt, noting the firm also opened up access to mental-health providers not covered under traditional plans to give employees a wider range of supports and culturally appropriate care.

Gender affirmation and fertility coverage are also becoming more popular with employers as they seek to meet the diverse needs of employees, noted the panel. In 2019, Sun Life added coverage for basic gender affirmation surgical procedures not covered by provincial and territorial health plans, such as facial feminization or masculinization.

These procedures can often be the most important to transgender plan members, said Hogan. “When employers are supporting their members during transition, it helps to foster that sense of belonging. It also helps to relieve some of the financial burden of the process, which can be quite costly. So gender affirmation coverage is one way to show the LGBTQ2S+ community that their needs have been considered in the creation of the employee benefits plan.”

Fertility struggles can also be costly for employees, with surrogacy costing up to $90,000, adoption fees ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 and in vitro fertilization procedures costing thousands of dollars per attempt.

“Relating back to the definition of DEI, it’s really that ‘E’ or equity around giving everyone an opportunity to start a family on a financially-level playing field,” said Hogan. “So this opportunity for plan sponsors to support individuals who use non-traditional approaches to grow their family is particularly important, especially to members of diverse communities.”

Read: Fertility benefits coverage is limited, outdated in Canada: report

However, according to a February 2021 study by fertility patient groups Conceivable Dreams and Fertility Matters Canada, just five per cent of Canadian employers provided coverage for both fertility drugs and other fertility costs and the median lifetime maximum was $3,250.

“When we start to increase the number of employers providing [those benefits], . . . we’re having that ripple effect because we know infertility and the associated treatments have an impact on physical, psychological [and] emotional well-being,” said Mawji. “When we’re trying to think of that holistic approach, we’re starting to move that needle.”

Traditionally, fertility benefits have been limited to drug coverage, added Schmidt, noting society is recognizing there isn’t “one cookie-cutter family and employees are calling out the inequity of supporting one type of family-building issue versus others. Plan sponsors are talking a lot about those family-planning benefits.”

Miller Titerle covers up to $4,000 for fertility treatments per year per employee. For a law firm that skews young, with six of 60 employees getting married this year alone, Poskitt said the team “probably need[s] to give some thought to the family-planning benefits we have in place. . . . . I’m sure there’s still room to be flexible and still room to move.”

Read: CIBC offering enhanced gender affirmation coverage, fertility benefits, paid parental leave

While Fluor Canada doesn’t yet offer fertility coverage, Hari emphasized the importance of listening to employees and making as-needed changes when it comes to integrating DEI into benefits. “Sometimes there’s a bit of a disconnect between what the employer thinks employees need and what employees actually say they need — and that changes over the decades. Certainly, my needs have changed. We have a flexible plan so people can allocate where they need and definitely we’re building on what we already offer with choice and making sure that whatever we offer is equitable and inclusive.”

KPMG in Canada is also constantly listening to its employees, including through its more than 30 employee resource groups, said Braid. “We’re frequently consulting with them to see what types of benefits would be most useful for them to make sure what we offer is inclusive.”