New benefits, leadership behaviour help support mental health: Panel

Manulife, RBC, AGS, Stikeman Elliott see results with proactive programs
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/15/2018

When Manulife took a look at its disability claim a couple of years ago, it was astonished to discover that mental health was the leading cause among workers ages 18 to 40, and the likelihood of recurrence was seven-times higher for this demographic than for other conditions.

“When you think about your younger workforce, the odds of recurrence are staggering,” said Sue Reibel, executive vice-president and general manager of institutional markets at Manulife Financial.

“That means that if we are not supporting our employees as early as possible, we have an incredible impact from a productivity perspective and the health of our workplace.”

Reibel was part of a five-person panel who spoke recently at a conference in Cambridge, Ont., entitled “Mental Health in the Workplace: Driving Action in Canada and Globally.”

So Manulife’s senior management decided it had to be doing more to support a “healthy framework” for employees, according to Reibel. “It wasn’t an HR initiative, it was a company initiative; it was critical to our strategy.”

In 2017, the company implemented a new $10,000-per-employee-per-year benefit for mental health support.

“People were saying that they didn’t have enough access to care,” said Reibel. “It doesn’t mean ‘I can’t find a psychologist,’ it means ‘I’ve run out of money and I can’t afford to get the treatment I need.’”

With the new benefit, Manulife saw a reduction in claims, higher return-to-work rates and a decrease in its drug costs, said Reibel.

RBC also instituted a new benefit for its workers, according to panellist Nadine Orr, vice-president of pensions and benefits at RBC.

Workers now have access to $3,000 for each family member for psychological coverage from a list that includes social workers, family counsellors, marriage counsellors, behavioural counsellors and autism therapy, she said.

“We got very positive feedback on the program, but what’s interesting is we are now six months into the program and the use of the benefit is far exceeding anything I have ever imagined,” said Orr. “People are now coming up to me in the hall and they are saying, ‘This is so great. I was struggling to support (my family); I have two children with disabilities: It’s just one less thing I have to worry about.’”

RBC has seen increased costs due to more employees using their mental health care benefits, said Orr, but they see it as part of being competitive.

“We need to have good people in order to continue to (earn) new business,” she said. “We’re telling employees: ‘This is important, what are you going to do to take care of yourself?’”

Leadership models

For RBC, it was the company’s CHRO who led them through an exercise in 2017 to establish a “leadership model,” said Orr. “The world at work is changing. Workplace stress is always going to be there.”

“We came up with a leadership model, in really simple English, (that showed) every single RBC employee ‘These are the behaviours and the capabilities that each one of us, because we are all leaders in our own right, we need to be effecting in order to drive the business forward and to adapt to this ever-changing environment,’” she said.

“We need every single one of our employees to come to work and bring their best self to work because for you to be curious, to go innovate, you need to be present for you to unlock the potential of your other teammates.”

Leaders would best serve their employees by exhibiting more reasonable work habits themselves, said panellists.

“They see you working at all hours and they are modelling their behaviour because to them... especially the young people, they thought that, ‘Yeah, I know that’s what you are saying, but you are modelling very different behaviour, and to be successful, I need to do that too,’” said moderator Jackie King, COO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, talking about her past experience working at public relations firm Hill & Knowlton.

“It was important to us to ask them what they thought they needed in terms of managing workplace stress and wellness.”

The company promoted a work blackout between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. that took some getting used to, said King.

“Nobody believed that we were going to do this, nobody believed that you would not get emails or be expected to address emails after seven o’clock at night.”

For law firm Stikeman Elliott, the first thing it did was “acknowledge that there is an issue,” according to Shanin Lott, managing director of talent and professional resources. Then it began a dialogue at town hall meetings, where managing partners talked about their experiences with mental health and their families.

“The feedback was phenomenal. All of a sudden, people were coming up and they were talking about that experience as well.”

The law firm also focused on creating a better work-life balance by encouraging lawyers to not work on vacation, help people to manage their own schedules, and not praise those who are working around the clock, said Lott.

“That sends the wrong signal.”

The life of a lawyer comes with its own mental health issues, she said, such as stress, burnout, anxiety and depression.

“Lawyers have overtaken dentists as (having) the highest rate of suicide and it doesn’t really matter if you are successful,” she said.

“There’s a great deal of pressure making decisions about people’s lives, about their businesses; that has extreme consequences if you get them wrong,”

For AGS Rehab Solutions, it was bottom-line financial results that alerted the company to a problem.

“We’ve seen the claims go up and up and up,” said Addie Greco-Sanchez, president of AGS.

So AGS appointed a leader as the company’s mental health consultant who was working on her master’s in mental health. It also held potluck lunches which helped by “engaging people, making people feel really good about being at work and really opening that dialogue,” she said.

The key to better mental health is beginning the dialogue, said Greco-Sanchez.

“We had one employee who said, ‘My mental health is none of your business.’ ... But within about a year, he changed his tune when he actually learned that he had his own mental health struggles.”

In 2013, AGS signed up for three-year case study with the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). The company also encourages employees to volunteer in the community.

“There is some great science behind volunteering and how good it makes you feel,” said Greco-Sanchez.

AGS Rehab’s work was recognized last year by Excellence Canada (originally known as the National Quality Institute and founded in 1992 by Industry Canada) with a gold medal for its efforts supporting mental health at work in 2017.

“It really is about taking action and it’s also about putting resources to the cause,’” said Greco-Sanchez. “You need to appoint a champion. You need to put a budget toward this and you need to be serious about being committed to it.”

5 recommendations

Together with a consortium of national and international leaders in mental health including the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED), the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), the Government of Canada, NHS England, mhNOW and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the two-day conference showcased the leadership of Canadian organizations and other international best practices in workplace mental health.

Other advisory committee representation included executives from the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, Morneau Shepell, Thomson Reuters (publishers of Canadian HR Reporter), the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Business Council, One Mind, citiesRISE, CivicAction, NAV Canada and Johnson & Johnson.

As a result of the discussions, several items were prioritized as important next steps to effect transformative change and continue the focus on this critical topic: 

1. Develop a comprehensive learning tool for schools (particularly in the undergraduate and graduate business programs) that addresses coping skills for mental health challenges among peers.

2. Ensure evidence-based and effective training programs for dealing with mental health issues in the workplace are available for roll out to all sizes of organizations and all levels of management.

3. Support this program with an easy-to-access/reference business case supporting the need for implementation.

4. Include a section on dealing with mental health challenges in all workplace safety certification programs (current and in development).

5. Call to action for Canada to champion mental health during the 2018 G7 Presidency, and other international forums, through transformative leadership that mobilizes global action on workplace mental health.

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