The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and work, and it has also impacted our health benefits plans. A panel discussion at our recent Trends in Health and Wellness virtual conference—including Kevin Higgins, National Vice President, Trustee, Group Benefits, with Manulife; Jim Vlahos, Executive Director of The General Contractors’ Association of Toronto; and Marg Romanow, Benefits Officer with the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, facilitated by Nick Gubbay, Principal with Eckler—discussed some of the main benefits challenges during the past year.
Rising mental health claims
Presenting claims statistics from Manulife’s trust business, Higgins said the top three claimed conditions have shifted during the pandemic. Mental and nervous disorders are now in the No. 1 spot, followed by respiratory and musculoskeletal claims.
With more people being out of work, there has been a real crunch on young families, he noted. For example, since women are often responsible for tasks like helping children with online school, this can add to their anxiety and stress. The pressure on mental health is “something that’s very much on our radar and that we’re watching as 2021 emerges,” Higgins added.
Vlahos confirmed that mental health has been a key area of focus for plans in the construction industry. Concerned about bringing the virus home with them, he has seen some workers living isolated from their families. Some are turning to negative coping mechanisms like alcohol or opioids to deal with increased anxiety, stress, depression and loneliness.
To support their workers, the benefit plans for which he serves as a trustee have put in place some enhancements, such as:
- Extending benefits eligibility and subsidizing coverage for those with pay-direct arrangements so that no one will lose their coverage due to insufficient hours or contributions;
- Temporarily increasing the weekly short-term disability (STD) benefit amount and relaxing the eligibility criteria; and
- Increasing the mental health benefits available to workers.
The pandemic has encouraged a more holistic approach toward health and helped us overcome the stigma of mental health issues, he added.
Thinking outside the box
From a broader perspective, benefits plan sponsors need to consider a “COVID pivot”, said Romanow. This means reviewing their policies and determining how they need to change them due to the pandemic. “Benefit plans have to adjust, and we have to be innovative,” she added.
For example, people may be fearful of going to the doctor during the pandemic or may have extended recovery times because they are unable to access certain health care services (such as physiotherapy). “We have to look at our normal adjudication process and adapt it to this situation,” Romanow explained.
One area she suggested plan sponsors focus on is their extended health plans. In addition to increasing coverage for psychological treatment, they may also consider expanding the scope to include non-traditional therapies, such as resilience training, mindfulness and homeopathic treatments. Effective communication is critical, so that employees understand the benefits available and how to access them, she added.
Of course, there will be a cost impact on the plan in the short term. However, Romanow believes that supporting workers now will have a positive impact on employee retention and the employee experience going forward. “Long term, we may have more loyal and productive workers,” she concluded.
Learn More About Mental Health and the Workplace
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Director, Education and Outreach – Canada
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