At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Julie Gaudry and her colleagues in the industry braced themselves for a surge in disability claims that never came to fruition.

“We didn’t know what the prevalence of this virus would be . . . and how significantly it would make people ill,” said Gaudry, head of group insurance at RBC Insurance, during Benefits Canada’s return-to-work webinar on Aug. 12. She noted everyone expected to see a flurry of short-term disability claims as the crisis unfolded. “While we’re now seeing an increase in claims, over 2020 certainly, it’s only been recently that we’ve started to see the volume of claims start to come close to what we were seeing pre-pandemic.”

Read: How will the coronavirus impact long-term disability claims?

RBC Insurance is closely monitoring where those claims are coming from and the diagnostic categories driving them, she added, pointing to mental heath as the leading cause of disability, representing roughly a third of claims.

As businesses across the country were shuttered due to federal and provincial lockdowns, it was important to monitor to what extent mental health-related issues would arise as a result of the physical and social restrictions, said Gaudry. And while RBC Insurance did see some short-term disability claims related to the coronavirus, it didn’t see a a lot of those pass into long-term claims, she added.

Gaudry suggested the workplace flexibility that surfaced during the shift to remote working in the early days of the crisis might have been one of a few factors that helped people cope. Putting on a brave face and having to see colleagues in-person might have made it more difficult for employees to manage, she said.

Also speaking at the webinar, Jeff Finley, total rewards manager at 3M Canada, said the past year and a half has caused the company to re-evaluate how it works. “We’ve taken those learnings and developed a new future of work. COVID-19 has really taught us that there is no one way to work.”

Read: Half of employers plan to continue flexible working policies post-pandemic: survey

3M recognizes its workforce is comprised of different roles, geography and personal circumstances, he said, and the organization has taken all of these considerations into account to create a new work environment called “work your way” that prioritizes flexibility for all employees. It also allows 3M to be an inclusive company in a global setting, he said, adding it’s essential for continued growth and the ability to attract and retain talent.

Microsoft Corp. already operated with flexibility at the heart of the organization, said Jason Brommet, the company’s head of modern workplace and security for Canada, during the webinar. “As we look to a post-pandemic world, we absolutely intend to embrace the hybrid work model, where we’ll have some of our employees and leaders in the office and others working remotely and, frankly, anywhere in between.”

He said the company believes in empowering employees with the right tools coupled with a supportive culture so they can bring their very best to work. “We believe the physical office will be very purpose-oriented as we move forward . . . to accomplish specific tasks or to empower employees with space to think alone or [collectively]. At the core of it is the idea of flexibility — people being able to choose when, where and how they work.”

Read: Sun Life allowing staff to choose where they work post-pandemic

But as employers plan their post-pandemic workplace, they’re facing several challenges, which make it difficult to accommodate, assist and implement returning to the workplace, said Mary Picard, a partner in the labour and employment group at Dentons Canada.

However, employers’ legal obligations remain unchanged, she said. “There’s no change to employers’ obligations to maintain a safe and healthy workplace, to reasonably accommodate employees who bring forth a protected ground under human rights legislation — medical, physical disability, religious — and thirdly, the obligation to protect personal medical information continues.”

According to Finley, 3M was seeing increased anxiety among its employees whenever it discussed returning to the workplace. “While many [employees] were looking forward to it, others were terrified at the notion and they were questioning the safety of the environment — would they be required to work around unvaccinated people, what was the air quality like?”

Read: Majority of Canadians questioning employers’ ability to handle hybrid work model

Picard cautioned that mandating proof of vaccination for employees to return to the workplace could result in constructive dismissal complaints. “Unless the workplace clearly cries out for everyone in the workplace to be vaccinated — high risk, medical, etc. — or one that falls under legislation that requires vaccination for the workplace, you may face a claim for constructive dismissal if you require an employee to be vaccinated when there are other ways . . . to protect the workplace.”

3M was seeing really good trends in decreased mental-health claims, said Finley, and the last thing it wanted to do was cause increased anxiety among its employees, which is why it came up with the “work your way” program. “It allows every employee to have those discussions with their managers to determine what works best for them to continue to be productive. If that means they’re at home, working remotely, then they can.

“We’ve just demonstrated for the past year and a half that we’re able to absolutely function and thrive in a virtual environment.”

Read: 90% of Canadian remote workers say working from home hasn’t hurt productivity: survey