Kraft Heinz VP Canada HR: Why mental health should have its own HR budget

Av Maharaj tells HRD why company ensured mental health has a wholly separate category of benefits, giving employees more resources

Kraft Heinz VP Canada HR: Why mental health should have its own HR budget

For Av Maharaj, his proudest achievement at Kraft Heinz is their overriding and unparalleled commitment to mental wellbeing. Though, as the chief administrative officer, VP, legal, corporate affairs & HR readily admitted, they’re not perfect - yet. 

“We're on a journey,” he told HRD. “Are we there yet? No – but it’s a great focus.”

Sitting at the helm of Kraft Heinz’s 30,000 strong staff base, Maharaj revealed that the pandemic served as an opportunity to really dig down and invest in the health and happiness of their teams. From changing their vacation policies to shifting organizational priorities, it’s been a lesson in wellbeing – and one that should serve as a reminder to HR leaders everywhere.

Read more: McDonald's director of people strategy on thriving in a pandemic

“One of the outcomes of this pandemic is a focus on mental health here at Kraft Heinz,” Maharaj told HRD. “We've taken this very, very seriously. We launched a speaker series where external speakers come in to speak about the issues they’ve faced with mental wellbeing and offer advice on how to persevere. We have our leadership team about their own personal challenges, both personally and with respect to their families, explaining what they've had to deal with mental health issues. We've also taken a number of other initiatives. For example, throughout Kraft Heinz, we have dedicated team members that employees can reach out to if they feel like they’re struggling. Of course, we also have employee assistance to help anyone financially too.

“The other aspect we really focused on was our benefit plans. We really made sure that mental health is now a wholly separate category of benefits so it's not subject to some of the financial limitations that were around before. There's a real focus on making sure that our employees have all the resources they need to make sure that they get through this pandemic and beyond.”

The notion of removing mental health from the overarching benefits budget is a new one – but one that’s none the less gaining momentum. The pandemic placed unparalleled pressure on employee benefits programs – from EAPs to sick leave to childcare – but by far the most utilised benefit was mental health services. By removing mental health from the benefits budget and allocating it a money pot all of its own, employers are less restricted when it comes to spending – meaning they can offer more to their teams.

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Mental health support has been the most utilized area of HR over the past few months. According to data from Statista, the number of employees who reported their mental health in the lowest category range has double since COVID. What’s more, 80% of organizations have seen a rising demand for more mental health support over the past 12 months – with working parents specifically calling for ‘mental wellness days’ as a perk. HR leaders have turned into guidance counsellors – with many organizations bringing in therapists and doctors to help employees through the struggles of remote work. All this focus on wellbeing is exactly why places like Kraft Heinz have been not only surviving the pandemic but thriving in it.

“We’re on a path to make Kraft Heinz the best place to work,” added Maharaj. “Like I said, I don't believe we'll ever get to the end - but everything we do wo do to make this a better place. That's the real powerful thing we're working with. There’s definitely been challenges during pandemic, there's definite issues around burnout and employees working too much - so work life balance is always going to be a challenge. What we’re looking at now is how to address these things. How do we actually make our employees lives better? That's the big thing I'm really looking forward to in the coming years with Kraft Heinz.”

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