As employees continue to seek new ways of accessing and using their benefits plans, a new study is aiming to further the development of one of the latest options, internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy.

This month, the University of Regina partnered with the Co-operators Group Ltd. to launch a year-long study on the benefits and challenges of online cognitive behavioural therapy and the level of interest among employees. Past research conducted by the university showed the online therapy is effective in improving mental-health symptoms and day-to-day functioning, including work disruption, family and home responsibilities and social life.

Read: Healthy Outcomes: Low-intensity cognitive behavioural therapy touted as alternative to address depression

“CBT is a highly effective treatment for anxiety and depression, as well as other mental health issues,” says Heather Hadjistavropoulos, a professor of psychology at the University of Regina and director of the online therapy unit. “Unfortunately, access, time constraints, fear of stigma and embarrassment deter people from face-to-face therapy. For many, online care is not only more convenient but preferred. In fact, 25 per cent of the people accessing our online therapy unit say this is the first time they felt comfortable seeking help.”

Indeed, the generation now dominating the workforce has grown up with computers, video games, social media and smartphones, so moving towards digital solutions for mental-health issues makes sense, says Barb Veder, vice-president of clinical services and research lead at Morneau Shepell Ltd. “When they’re struggling, they intuitively turn to online sources for help. To match their learning and lifestyle preferences, we’re using CBT as the foundation for flexible, customizable and portable online programs. If you have a smartphone, you have immediate access to help.”

But Veder also stresses that online cognitive behavioural therapy programs must have options so that when people are really struggling, they can follow up with a trained mental-health professional.

Read: How can big insurers, new tech-focused players work together?

While online cognitive behavioural therapy isn’t new, it demonstrates the continuing growth in using technology to deliver health and wellness services. “Technology has changed the way health-care plans are packaged and delivered and allowed us to create more flexible, customizable and integrated programs,” says Christiane Bourassa, a senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson.

“The challenge going forward will be in assessing what new technologies will best drive healthier behaviours and enhance employee engagement,” adds Bourassa. “It’s not the benefits that change but how they’re packaged and delivered.”

Insurance companies seem ready for the challenge. In June, Sun Life Financial introduced a one-year online cognitive behavioural therapy pilot project with the University of Regina. The insurer also recently formed a new business area called digital health solutions to curate emerging digital health products and services.

Kevin Dougherty, president of Sun Life Financial Canada, says the team’s work will roll out over the next six to 12 months across the company’s platforms, including its website, mobile application and call centres. Plans include notifications sent to members turning 50 suggesting a visit to the doctor to check for certain health issues and messages to employees with diabetes encouraging them to get their eyes checked.

Read: Sun Life adds virtual CBT program to mental-health care

And this week, Sun Life launched Ella, an interactive digital coach that aims to help employees make the best use of their benefits plans. The online coach will initially provide information, insight and advice to plan members, but the insurer plans to make Ella an increasingly interactive tool that connects employees to applicable resources.

On the mental-health front, online information and support has progressed from email and website articles and links to interactive, multidimensional apps that link users to a wide array of resources, tools, peer groups and counsellors.

“There are new technologies on the horizon, such as word-pattern software that will help detect if people are in crisis, that will make online health services even more effective and more meaningful to both individuals, organizations and health-care professionals,” says Veder.

Copyright © 2021 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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