Case Study Highlights
Started The Working Mind Training: 2021
Leaders Trained So Far: 340
COVID-19 Effects on WestJet
When the world shut down in March of 2020, many industries were forced to quickly adapt to the realities of a worldwide pandemic. However, none were hit as drastically as the airline industry.
Restrictions enacted to stop the spread of COVID-19 meant that pilots and flight attendants were turned away from businesses and prevented from obtaining basic health care, such as dental and physio, because their work brought them into close contact with the public.
In an effort to manage the uncertainty of travel during the pandemic, WestJet offered their employees a range of options regarding their employment: early retirement (if they were eligible), to be laid off, or to move to part-time hours. Some employees opted for a wait-and-see approach and let the company decide their status as full-time or part-time employees, or if they would eventually be laid off. The end result was 10,000 employees were lost in the span of a few months.
Lisa Dodwell-Greaves, Manager, Organizational Wellbeing at WestJet, was one of the thousands of WestJet employees who were fortunate to retain full-time status during the entire pandemic. She was retained due to her experience in the fields of disability management and mental health.
“Those initial months had lots of uncertainty. We had to redefine the organizational structure and identify a bare-bones minimum crew to keep the lights on,” Dodwell-Greaves shared. “I wouldn’t say the culture of WestJet has changed, but I worked through the entire pandemic. However, people returning to their jobs after a layoff have said the culture has a different feel to it, and I think defining this new culture will be a big focus for us going forward.”
Dodwell-Greaves explained that even before the pandemic, mental health became a central concern for WestJet when the Total Rewards team noticed a high number of short- and long-term disability claims. With this data in hand, they set out to put proactive measures in place to help WestJetters seek support before they needed to take a leave from work.
“The Total Rewards team found that mental health and musculoskeletal issues were the most commonly cited reasons for filing claims,” Dodwell-Greaves said. “One of the first real steps we took was in implementing a new benefits plan in August 2019.”
In the new benefits plan, WestJetters and their families can get support with their most pressing concerns and the plan is focused on preventative measures.
For instance, instead of having all paramedical benefits lumped into one bucket with one maximum amount, WestJet made psychology, physiotherapy, and dietician care their own line items, and this increased the amount of coverage offered for each area of care.
“We also increased the maximum yearly amount per family member covered in the plan from $500 up to $2,500,” Dodwell-Greaves said, “with the lowest plan now starting at $750 per year.”
Among their many well-being initiatives, WestJet also introduced an anti-stigma program in July 2019 to start a conversation around mental health and challenge misconceptions in this area.
“We said to employees, we understand that stigma is a real thing, and we need to start the conversation,” said Dodwell-Greaves. “It’s important to know that our mental health initiatives didn’t start with the pandemic, but the pandemic certainly escalated and accelerated the plan.”
In early 2020, WestJet decided they were going to commit to implementing the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. Unfortunately, when the COVID-19 pandemic made its way into Canada in early March 2020, everything was suddenly put on hold.
“That year we still actually managed to get quite a few things out around psychological safety,” Dodwell-Greaves shared. “And during that time, we continued talking about mental health to remind people of its importance and that the pandemic was going to be a marathon, not a sprint.”
By January 2021, WestJet knew they needed to create a strategy to make a real difference to all employees.
“We put the strategy together and really focused on the next three to five years. We asked ourselves, how can we take something that is a big concept and really put it into focused buckets. We also looked at areas where we could get quick wins. What are some things that can be done to support employees, and in what areas can our leaders start to learn how to support our employees in a more meaningful way?”
As part of their new 2021 vision, WestJet switched Employee Assistance Program (EAP) providers to help their employees access online counselling.
“WestJet pays for the first five hours of counselling – five hours per person plus five hours of family counselling,” Dodwell-Greaves explained. “So, if you were to use all of the WestJet covered time, that would be 10 free hours of counselling. And if you want to continue seeing your counsellor, your enhanced paramedical benefits would cover those visits.”
WestJet also returned to its 2020 commitment to implement the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace and worked with mental health consultants to begin implementing it.
“I have found that wherever you think you are in starting the journey, you actually need to take a couple of steps back and that’s where you’re actually starting in your journey and with educating people,” she stated.
In 2021, WestJet teamed up with the Mental Health Commission of Canada to introduce The Working Mind (TWM) to their leaders. TWM is an evidence-based program designed to promote mental health and reduce the stigma around mental illness in the workplace.
“Before we launched anything to our employees, we wanted to make sure our leaders had a really good sense of how to help their employees,” Dodwell-Greaves explained.
“One of WestJet’s values is Care from the Heart and exactly how to do that in an employment relationship around mental health can be tricky. This program helps define what caring from the heart looks and sounds like for our leaders.”
Many of WestJet’s leaders completed the TWM training in 2021 and the feedback from leaders as been positive. They found the program to be very interactive and enjoyed participating in the discussions. In 2022, WestJet will begin training employees with the employee-level training program from TWM.
Dodwell-Greaves expressed that she is still a bit nervous about the strain the ongoing pandemic is having on WestJet employees’ resilience. “It’s been a roller coaster of highs and lows for all of us, the people who’ve been working the whole time and those who were laid off and are now returning to work. I really think it is going to be important over the next year to make sure that we’re filling up our own buckets so that our company can continue to be resilient,” she said.
Dodwell-Greaves shared that the results of The Working Mind program from participants have been positive, but she knows that it will likely be a long and slow journey to reach the goal of reducing the various different types of stigma around mental health.
But Dodwell-Greaves notes that there have been small wins so far. “I haven’t heard any defensive reactions for quite some time now, like, ‘oh, that’s not our job,’ or ‘oh, we shouldn’t be talking about mental health,’ or ‘that’s not our role. We’re not counsellors.’ This is really nice because that was a barrier for some before,” she explained.
“I have to tell you, The Working Mind training was one of the best sessions I’ve attended in my 3+ years at WestJet.”
“My goal in implementing this training is that all WestJetters have the same baseline knowledge on mental health. We have a wide range of starting points. There are some people who still aren’t quite sure what the difference is between mental health and mental illness. And then there are other people who have lived the experience,” she stated. “We want to ensure that everybody has the same understanding so we can easily talk about mental health and use common language.”
WestJet has big plans for the future of their mental health strategy, not only for their employees, but also for their guests and the communities they serve.
“This year, the Calm app was added to our in-flight entertainment system,” Dodwell-Greaves noted. “When you’re sitting on the plane, you can use Calm and, if you’re like me and you’re a nervous flyer, you can do your deep breathing during the flight.”
On top of that, Dodwell-Greaves shared that WestJet has many charitable partners and is considering how these partnerships can continue to work towards WestJet’s mission of “enriching the lives of everyone in WestJet’s world.”
“For example,” Dodwell-Greaves explained, “we have partnered with a charity that takes a group of WestJetters to the Dominican Republic on a regular basis to build houses for underprivileged families.” Dodwell-Greaves herself was a participant in this endeavour in 2019. “The charity also has learning circles that support the mental health of youth participants,” she noted. “The next step is not just doing it internally but making sure that everyone in WestJet’s world understands that we would like to support their well-being.”
Related Reading >>> Industry turbulence: Building mental health into WestJet’s pandemic operations
To learn more about The Working Mind, visit our website here.