The coronavirus pandemic has altered the landscape of Canadian workplaces. Now, more than ever, communication and compassion are imperative for employees to feel secure and supported by their employers.

Before the pandemic arrived in Canada, Hyundai Auto Canada Corp. accelerated its emphasis on mental wellness in January 2020 by tripling its mental-health coverage (from an annual maximum of $500 combined with other paramedical benefits to $1,500 for just mental health); increasing its health-care spending account maximum; and introducing a personal wellness account. In a recent survey, the company found 83 per cent of employees believe Hyundai Canada has a healthy workplace environment, both psychologically and emotionally.

Group benefits are vital to the organization’s employee engagement strategy, says Kirk Merrett, the organization’s director of human resources, noting an engaged workforce is more productive, creative and, ultimately, more profitable.

Read: How to support employees’ mental health during coronavirus

Mental health and coronavirus

52% of Canadians said their mental health is either somewhat worse or much worse since physical distancing began, while 24%
said their mental health is about the same, somewhat better or much better.

88% experienced at least one symptom of anxiety in the two weeks prior to completing the survey. Some 71% of respondents reported feeling nervous, anxious or on edge.

64% of those aged 15 to 24 reported a negative impact on their mental health, while 35% of those aged 65 or older reported the same.

Source: Statistics Canada, 2020

A substandard benefits offering can actively discourage employees who might otherwise be engaged, he notes, which makes it necessary to continually re-examine how it can be improved. “High employee engagement levels are where the magic happens for a business. Mental health and well-being are a key part of our benefits program, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s good business sense.”

According to Merrett, there’s no health without mental health — and Hyundai Canada’s actions reflect this mantra. In addition to its 2020 benefits plan changes, the organization introduced specific programs to further support employees during this difficult time. “We changed our method of communication to a more caring approach. We listened to our people . . . and mental health and well-being was an area that was important to them and for us as well.”

Hyundai Canada’s recent improvements are just the latest in an ongoing strategy to ensure the group benefits plan is in a state of perpetual evolution. In 2019, it ran a full-day, interactive mental-health workshop for managers with the aim of reducing stigma and providing help-seeking tools for all employees. In May 2020, it dedicated an entire month to mental wellness.

Read: 5 benefits predictions for the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic

“[Well-being] initiatives really fit into the support of our people,” says Merrett. “We know our business success is a result of our employees. We want them to feel safe, secure and supported, both professionally and personally.”

When considering benefits plan changes, the company is guided by regular feedback. For example, it created Hyundai huddles, which are essentially focus groups that bring employees together to discuss specific topics.

Risk mitigation, talent acquisition

It’s important for employers to consider their evolving demographic on a regular basis to make sure they’re meeting their employees’ needs, but also to win the war on talent, says Suzanne Paiement, a partner at Normandin Beaudry who specializes in health services. “Salary isn’t the only way to attract people. Having a benefits plan, a wellness program and so forth are also ways of helping win the talent war.”

Well-being initiatives can also have a positive impact on drug and disability costs, two major risks within benefits plans, she says, noting these initiatives can lower claims because reimbursement encourages employees to take care of their own health, which can potentially delay incidences of disease, drug plan use and disability.

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

Before the coronavirus crisis, a substantial percentage of disability claims were mental-health related, says Paiement, and this is expected to rise due to the pandemic. While it’s important to have mental-health support, the topic is much bigger than an action item in a company’s benefits plan, she adds.

“More and more, employers are training managers, creating communications strategies with informational material and even assigning ways to address issues with colleagues who show distress signs to ensure they’re well supported.”

The power of communication

In terms of business strategy, social issues must always be at the forefront, notes Merrett. “We have a tight, well-functioning group and everybody working from home has certainly created a different dynamic.”

Indeed, with the onset of the coronavirus in March, Hyundai Canada was quick to tell employees there would be no salary or job cuts, which helped alleviate anxieties. It then introduced a number of activities to promote connectivity between employees, such as online trivia and Bingo, at-home happy hours and even a drive-in movie night in the company parking lot. It also established two Zoom groups, one for people isolating alone and another for pandemic parenting.

Read: How can employers manage work-from-home burnout?

The HR team has also had personal touchpoints with every employee over the past three months. At the pandemic’s onset, the organization knew communication was going to be crucial, says Merrett. For the first month, it had daily calls for all employees to provide status updates about the company, its people and its business. These calls were reduced to three times a week and are now hosted on a weekly basis. “COVID calls are a form of communication so our employees have the current information, but are also an opportunity to ask questions as an engagement tool.”

When organizations review their benefits plans, they must also factor in and address social issues, says Paiement. “The coronavirus has had an impact on the way employees are working and employers have to look into these new realities to ensure people are well positioned at home to diminish any negative impacts and prevent disability.”

Cassandra Williamson-Hopp is conference editor at Benefits Canada.

Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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