There is no denying that we’re all ready to put 2020 in the past and look to the future. Before we jump forward, it would be prudent to take a look at the benefits program through the lens of 2020 (definitely not rose-coloured glasses) and capture the learnings before we leap forward. Ok, we’re a bit battered and bruised and if you feel anything like me, are trudging more than leaping. That’s beside the point. Making changes based on our recent experiences might help future-proof your organization and could possibly be the tipping point to the survival of your organization.
What is happening in benefits programs across the country?
A new survey by Willis Towers Watson found that only 4% of survey respondents have or are planning to reduce their health-care benefits during this time as a result of the pandemic. Locally, the numbers are a bit higher with 8% of respondents to the CPHR survey reporting that they will make changes to their benefits plan to control labour costs.  The good news is that a whopping 53% are actually enhancing their well-being programs and 27% are planning to make changes to improve health benefits. So, what does this look like?
Emotional well being in the workplace
Benefits have historically fallen into two general buckets: financial protection and physical protection. These areas of an employee’s well being are no less meaningful now than they were in the past, and in fact could be argued to be more fragile or tenuous than ever before. However, an additional bucket of protection is really a must for any organization who wants to take care of their employees and ultimately their business. That is providing services to take care of emotional well being.
In a study conducted by Statistics Canada between April to May, 2020, Canadians were asked how their mental health has changed since physical distancing began. Just over half (52%) of participants indicated that their mental health was either "somewhat worse" or "much worse."  There is much talk about a pending mental health crisis as a result of fallout of the pandemic and these numbers support this.
Employers can structure the benefits program to protect their employees in a number of ways, some of which are preventative measures and some are reactive in nature.
· Employee Assistance Program (EAP) - These programs provide employees and their dependents with free and confidential guidance and counselling for various personal problems such as relationships, financial, parenting, the challenges of working remotely and other difficulties that are a result of the pandemic.
· Increase coverage for mental-health practitioners such as psychologist and social worker – Very large organizations such as Manulife and Starbucks have made a statement about their support of employee mental health by providing $10,000 in coverage per year. For small to mid-size employers, an annual maximum for these services of $1,000 which is supplemented with an EAP will go a long way in supporting employees.
· Virtual programs aimed at mental health and emotional well-being such as EQ Care, Inkblot Therapy and MindBeacon.
· Health Spending Account (non-taxable spending account) and Wellness Account (taxable-spending account) - Provides flexibility and fills in gaps of coverage for health and wellness related expenses such as mental-health practitioner expenses that exceed group benefits coverage and fitness equipment.
Financial well being of employees
If we’ve learned anything in the last 8 months, it’s that the unexpected CAN and DOES happen. The vast majority of us don’t adequately plan for the unexpected because we can never picture it happening to us. This pandemic has been an eye opener for many, and as a result, employees are more interested than they’ve ever been in the benefits that offer financial protection to themselves and their families in the event that they become too sick or injured to work.
The benefits that quite frankly we hope we never have to use, such as Long-Term Disability, which is an income-replacement benefit that can pay all the way up until age 65 and Critical Illness, which is a tax-free, lump sum benefit that is payable based on a list of eligible illnesses and meant to cover any kind of expenses that arise from having a serious illness such as parking, childcare, modifications to the home or vehicle, even vacation to preserve mental health during such a stressful time.
· Long-Term Disability (LTD) - Organizations that currently provide this coverage may see an increase in claims due to the impacts of prolonged stress. Regular audits should be conducted to identify gaps in coverage for high income earners as well as employees who are eligible to apply for additional coverage in excess of the non-evidence maximum (the maximum benefit the insurance company will provide without proof of good health).
· Critical Illness- This benefit is an excellent cost-effective option for organizations whose budget does not allow for LTD. Coverage is available up to $50,000 with no proof of good health required, and higher amounts with medical questionnaires.
· Financial Literacy Programs - While this is a non-traditional benefit, financial literacy and financial coaching programs for employees who may be dealing with reduced income due to spousal job loss, salary freezes and high levels of debt will be a significant value to the wellness of the workplace.
At this time, many organizations have no budget for additional benefits programs. In this case, a comprehensive review of the existing program will help assess which lesser-valued benefits could be reduced or eliminated to create available funds for higher value programs.
In addition, it can’t be stressed enough that having these programs in place doesn’t do a lick of good if employees aren’t aware of them. An intentional communication strategy is a vital part of a successful employee benefits program. Busy organizations who manage the employee benefits plan along with a multitude of other responsibilities should not hesitate to lean on their benefits advisor to develop and implement communication campaigns.
As we work through the rebuilding of the economy, the benefits plan can be a valuable tool to take care of employees and ensure that they’re up for the task of helping your business survive.
Shannon Hughes is a seasoned Benefits and Pension Specialist and our list of Trusted Resource Providers at VIMY HR. In her role as founder of Captivate Benefits, she is passionate about helping companies protect their most valuable asset...their people! She takes pride in supporting business leaders and their employees make sense of benefits. Her specialty is in providing unique benefits, retirement and wellness solutions for the non-profit sector and small to medium businesses. She can be contacted at Shannon@CaptivateBenefits.com.
 Alberta HR Trends Report, Summer 2020. Retrieved September 2020: https://www.cphrab.ca/AB-HRTrends-Aug20  Canadians’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, Released May 27, 2020. Retrieved September 2020: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200527/dq200527b-eng.htm