Strong interest in voluntary health standard

By Alain Thériault | June 25 2014 11:25AM

Health problems, and the spiralling costs they induce, are driving employers to take serious measures. A growing number of businesses are opting for a self-administered cure: the voluntary standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace. The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is purely voluntary. Beyond the highly publicized endorsement from mega-groups like Bell Canada, Manulife Financial and Great-West, over 30 Canadian organizations have agreed to participate in a three-year case study of implementation of the standard. Employee benefits consultant Morneau Shepell, which serves several large businesses, is another front-runner.

Professional chartered accountant and financial planner Charles J. Bruce has worked in group insurance for the past 15 years. He is the CEO of the Nova Scotia Public Service Long Term Disability Plan Trust Fund. The public service of this province is among the study participants, as is the union that represents provincial government employees, nearly 20,000 members strong.

Bruce also actively volunteers. He chaired the working committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) workforce advisory committee from 2011 to 2013, and still sits on this committee. He also chairs the Nova Scotia Division of the CMHA. He was selected from among numerous civil servant candidates to become a member of the technical committee that developed the National standard.

Bruce points out that the group formed for the MHCC case study encompasses tens of thousands of Canadian employees from sea to sea, at organizations ranging from public service agencies to private businesses. Several economic sectors are represented. Nearly three-quarters of the participating businesses have over 500 employees.

Popular download

Interest in the standard far exceeds the case study. Between its launch on Jan. 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014, the Standard has been downloaded 18,000 times from the Canadian Standards Association (CSA Group) website, Bruce says. These are the only quantifiable results to date. “We must recognize that the standard is new. Results we’re seeing right now can be qualified but not quantified,” he adds.

Bell Canada vice-president, Lucie Dutil recently reported a 4% decrease in the duration of disability leave between 2010 and 2013.

Bruce is not surprised. He says Bell has led the way by implementing the standard from the get-go, and one of their human resources executives sat on the standard development committee.

Bruce adds that it is not only case study members that have gotten on board. “We are aware that many organizations took steps but are not taking part in the case study. Others are waiting on the sidelines to see what happens,” he explains.

Some who are waiting on the sidelines are concerned that implementing the standard means they will have to start from zero, but this is not the case, says Bruce. Many of those organizations are already doing things that can be adapted into the process. Among them, employee assistance programs, disability and return to work management and training for the managers. Once the organization starts the implementing process, one step is to establish a baseline of where it is today and then build on the good things they already have,” he says.

Bruce also adds that some companies think implementing the standard demands tremendous resources. “Cost questions always come up.” He gave the example of a company with 4000 employees that has assigned only 1% of its human resources to the standard implementation project.

Dutil of Bell Canada, pointed out at a gathering on workplace health and welfare (Rassemblement sur la santé et le mieux-être en entreprise) organized in Montreal in April, that it takes only three people to manage Let’s Talk, the company’s workplace psychological health and welfare program. Well informed employees and managers who are equipped to support them do the rest.

Great-West (including Canada-Life and London Life), one of the giants that opted to implement the standard, began with a database that although large, consumed few resources because it is hosted on the Web. In 2007, the insurer launched the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace. This site provides free public resources to employers and individuals (who need not be customers), including its Workplace Strategies for Mental Health.

“Through the Centre, Great-West Life helped to fund the development of the Standard,” says Mike Schwartz, senior vice-president, Group Benefits at Great-West. The centre is also helping finance the case study, Schwartz adds.

The participants are not obliged to fully implement the standard. “As participants, Great-West Life, London Life and Canada Life are committed to fully or partially adopting the Standard over the next three years and sharing our experiences with the Mental Health Commission of Canada,” Schwartz explained. As a next step, Great-West is implementing mandatory online training in health and safety for its employees, as of June 1.

Team of specialists

Manulife Financial created a national team of mental health specialists in April to support its group insurance customers and their employees facing mental health problems. The insurer hopes to fill gaps noted in the groups that it insures. Two areas of disability management can be improved, the insurer says: employee treatment and support.

The Manulife team will help disability file managers at its corporate customers to control claims linked to mental health problems. The insurer aims to reduce the impact of mental health on plan costs and eventually the duration of disability. (See Manulife establishes dedicated mental health team, The Insurance and Investment Journal, May 2014)

“Mental health is a social responsibility, and population health is an issue that we all have to recognize, Bruce says. “Most people today know someone in their surroundings affected by a psychological issue,” Bruce says. These problems are now as openly acknowledged as diseases like cancer, he adds.