On Wednesday, September 27th Montridge hosted our 7th annual “Ask the Experts” panel discussion online. During this webinar, we discussed some of today’s biggest workplace issues, including mental health, AI, benefit trends, the new Pay Transparency Act, and employee retention strategies.
We received questions from registrants before the event and opened the floor to attendees to ask more during the discussion. Continue reading for a recap of some of the most noteworthy questions and answers below.
But first, let’s get to know the panelists who featured at the event, and what each thinks is the biggest challenge in HR today.
About the Panelists
Mark Sheritt: Partner at Baker Tilly
“I believe today’s biggest HR challenge is the return to office plan. Rebuilding and onboarding a team with new staff and remaining flexible to WFH requirements are key factors.”
Ryan Anderson: Partner, Mathews Dinsdale Clark LLP
“The role of HR in the context of the employee relationship is the biggest challenge I see today. Employers need to manage employee expectations, as attitudes have changed since the pandemic. Implementing a ‘say anything culture’, where the employer/employee relationship is at the forefront.”
Judith Mewhort: Managing Partner, Montridge Advisory Group
“I see several big challenges, including how to support rising mental health concerns in the younger population, how to give employees the flexibility to work from home, building benefits programs that are tailored to your employees’ needs while ensuring fairness and avoiding one size fits all solutions.”
Debra Walker: Associate HR Consultant, Chemistry Consulting Group
“I see resiliency as the biggest challenge. Organizations need to move forward in this new climate of employee expectations. Ultimately, it’s about treating others as you would like to be treated.”
Now, on to more of the questions from the event!
Mental health is a hot topic these days. How can employers support mental health in the workplace?
Judith: The mental health needs of employees have increased over the years, particularly among younger workers. Organizations need to focus on a benefits strategy that addresses workplace mental health. At the most basic level, creating a positive workplace culture can help bolster mood and curb issues proactively. Focus on mentorship, team-building events, and exercises that bring people together on and offline.
Even in remote work settings, it’s important to continue to support employee mental health. Front-line management should be trained to recognize mental health concerns whether they’re in the same room as an employee or only see them occasionally on Zoom. Management should feel equipped to have mental health conversations with staff sensitively. Noticing if someone is suffering is more challenging with remote workers, but spotting issues is possible. Ultimately, it comes down to regular check-ins with employees and building trusting relationships.
Taking it one step further, companies can offer employees a range of virtual mental health support services. These include virtual workplace wellness programs, employee & family assistance programs, internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy, and continuum of care programs. Telemedicine allows people to seek help in a way that fits with their schedule. It also keeps costs lower for employers, compared to traditional in-person therapy benefits.
Often, financial troubles are at the root of many mental health challenges. Employers can get ahead of that by supporting employees with financial literacy, including how to deal with rising inflation and debt.
Employees who need medication can benefit from the advent of pharmacogenetic testing. This technology determines how people will respond to medications based on their genetic makeup. Patients are more likely to receive the correct medication and dosage quicker, reducing unpleasant side effects for them and costs for the employer.
At some point, an employee may need to take a mental health leave from work. When they are ready to return, focus on welcoming them back and treating them in the same way as before they left. Educate your team on appropriate language surrounding the situation. Discourage talk that the person is “crazy” or other negativity. In the beginning, focus on workplace attitude and culture, rather than policies and procedures.
Don't forget to document anything related to the employee's leave and return. This includes milestones, expectations, modifications and any disputes that may arise.
Questions around WFH/return to office
Ryan: Many employers are still trying to catch up with the rapid change from a full-time office setting to working from home. A critical factor that's often overlooked is ensuring employees have a safe and healthy home workspace. Because the reality is, for many the home is the new workplace.
The good news is that the policies and procedures you have in place for the office also apply to the home office with a few additions. Employers need to develop a workplace safety policy that addresses the home environment. This includes checking if employees’ workstations are safe and ergonomic. It means ensuring each employee has a home evacuation plan in case of emergency. Employees should also be able to report any issues surrounding their home workspace and trust that the employer will help resolve them within a reasonable time frame.
How can organizations best retain employees in today’s competitive climate?
Judith: When it comes to employee retention, it’s important for people to feel connected to a higher purpose in the organization. Leadership needs to be open to sharing strategy, goals, and vision, addressing the question “Why does what we do matter?”. Mentorship is also important. People want to know they are moving forward, learning, and contributing.
Regular check ins with a leader are key. A survey by payroll provider, ADP, found employees who meet with their supervisor once a week are 53% more likely to stay with their current company versus 34% who only receive feedback once per year.
Debra: Trust and being connected to leadership are important. People need to feel the organization is working in their best interest. This could be as small as having your boss and other leaders remember your name. Being able to voice opinions and receive continuous feedback on performance are also key.
Often, people feel a lack of community and loneliness, especially in a remote setting. But if you can help people feel a part of a community and a bigger purpose, it makes them want to stay.
Where do you see AI being used in your industry and what are the associated challenges?
Debra: After the pandemic, traditional HR roles began moving away from operations, and more toward strategic HR. AI is beginning to take on the operations piece and we can now spend more time with the high-touch items.
Judith: Insurance companies use AI to assess risk and utilization rates. AI can find anomalies quicker than humans and identify benefits fraud. This keeps costs low. It also assists with apps, ease of communication, and payment.
Mark: A downside to AI is that people are starting to use Chat GPT for tax advice. Often it gives them the wrong answer or simply bad advice. So we still need to double-check any answer that AI provides in that sense.
Debra: Companies are using AI as a tool to mitigate heavier workloads, help with employee training and development, and create workplace policies. We need to be ready to manage the output that AI can deliver.
Employers are increasingly hiring contractors. What do we need to know about liability for these workers?
Mark: Companies may hire a contractor with the belief that they can let them go whenever they want with no compensation. But if the contractor worked for you for a long time, and depends solely on you for income, legally they may be under the category of employee.
If things go south between you, the contractor may ask for compensation. This could include severance or backpay for overtime hours worked - and legally they may be entitled to it. If they get injured or ill, then you may be liable for continuing their wages, which could end up being tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
So remember that you can go ahead and hire contractors, but that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for them.
Many employers lack a policy that outlines workplace extended leave. How do you determine when you can end an employment contract?
Judith: Companies need a policy that states what coverage an employee will receive if they leave on disability. The length of time you must provide benefits should be clearly outlined in the contract. If you cut them off too soon, it may be a case of unlawful discrimination, and you could be liable for more compensation.
Every employer has a duty to accommodate employees if they are still able to work but now have a disability. However, if you can accurately assess that an employee cannot return to work at all, then you can end the employment. An assessment should include the duration of absence, the person’s history, and their medications. If a person is no longer an active employee, their benefit coverage will stop.
Usually, a person can remain on long-term disability (LTD) for around two years. And while it’s controversial to dismiss someone for being disabled, it's allowed if they are no longer able to do their job. For example, if an employee is hit by a car, and after four months, their doctor says they aren’t able to return to work, you can end the employment right then, rather than waiting two years.
But you also need to assess how that termination looks for the organization. How will it impact the person’s mental health? How will they feel towards your organization? Will they feel coldly let go or valued for the work they did while they were there? Also, consider how it will affect the rest of the still-employed team.
For any employee on a protected leave – Maternity, parental, compassionate care etc. – employees must be given the option to continue benefits. Specifically, if an employer pays 100% of the premium or makes contributions to a retirement, savings, or Healthcare Spending Account, those benefits must continue during the duration of the leave. If there is a cost-sharing arrangement with an employee such as a portion of the health plan premiums or matching contributions retirement plan, the employee must be given the option to continue to pay their portion usually through the use of post-dated cheques. If an employee elects to pay their portion, the employer must continue to fund the balance. If an employee chooses not to continue to pay their portion during a leave, best practice is to have the employee acknowledge the refusal in writing.
How would you suggest hiring a high-price employee, given the new Pay Transparency Act?
Ryan: With the new Pay Transparency Act, there are now reporting requirements for wages and gender gaps. Employers will be required to publish any evident gender gaps in pay. So it’s important to develop strategies in advance to address this.
Mark: Keep in mind that if the company can’t afford to give the right candidate the salary they are asking for, you can propose other kinds of compensation. These include bonuses, RRSP contributions, vacation time, and equity within the company.
Employers need to help these high-value employees get where they want to go career-wise. Give them good reasons to want to work for you. In many cases, people aren’t looking at just the salary. Feeling valued within the company on a career track that they want makes it worth it for people to join your company and stay.
We hope the discussion above helps you navigate the complex issues that HR must deal with every day. Things are always changing, and we’re here to help your organization thrive throughout it all. Reach out here if you’d like to learn how we can help you Strengthen Your Team.