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Walking the Walk

The changing dynamics of workplace health, wellness and rejuvenation


It’s unanimous! Investing in employee wellbeing makes good business sense. Employee health includes not only physical health but also psychological and social wellbeing. Today’s health and wellness programs are designed to not only ensure employee health, but also involve active efforts to promote employee wellbeing.

The basics of business undisputedly impact the business bottom line. The economy. Competition. Politics and government policies. Money and resources. Customer relationships. Company culture. And, as many business insiders point out, the most vital factor is staff.

Borrowing from the cliché about happy spouse-happy life, the business version suggests that healthy and happy staff is not only a key bottom line factor, but also translates into overall business success. While it’s impossible to quantify business intangibles like workplace atmosphere, and staff mood and morale, health and wellness are acknowledged as essential.

According to the most recent Conference Board of Canada’s Wellness Initiatives report, healthy workplaces consider the overall wellbeing of employees and address more than employee’s physical health. They not only protect but also promote employee wellbeing. The report details that employee health promotion and wellness initiatives, supported by the organization’s benefits programs, are an essential part of a healthy workplace and emphasizes that investing in a healthy workplace makes good business sense.

Common health issues, from cancer care, heart disease, maternity care, diabetes, prescriptions, dental, glasses and even flu shots, matter. There are also relatively recent wellness and rejuvenation options that have become popular must-have features in the workplace and important aspects of company business plans, such as psychological services, flex time, personal days, massage therapy, laser eye surgery, personal training and weight loss.

“Finding a balance between the rising costs of employee benefit plans versus appealing to the needs of employees continues to be a challenge for some employers,” explains Jennifer Kirby, principal at Vital Partners Inc., Calgary’s innovative consultants specializing in customized benefits solutions for employee health, wellness, and financial security goals.

“Employers continue to review and update their benefits plan philosophy to ensure that their plan aligns with company values in order to attract and retain key employees. Bridging the gap between employee desires and the types of benefit investments an organization is willing to make can be complex. A defined benefit plan is a great way to give employees choice regarding what coverage might be meaningful to the individual employee.”

Because today’s workplace is such a changing dynamic, choice is crucial. “With up to five generations in the workforce, employers are juggling diverse needs. It can be difficult to make everyone happy with a one-size-fits-all plan.”

When it comes to the business of providing in-demand health and wellness benefits, the formula stays constant and embraces change.

“Employees of all ages continue to value the basic offerings when it comes to employee benefits,” says Bryan Benjamin, vice president of organizational performance with The Conference Board of Canada. “One trend that may be partly attributable to a generational shift is the emphasis on increased flexibility. While it is still more common for organizations to offer fixed rather than flexible benefits plans, more organizations are choosing to supplement these fixed plans with healthcare spending accounts (HCSAs), which offer flexibility for employees to focus on their personalized health concerns.

“This is not just a product of a younger demographic in the workforce. It is about making benefits more personalized for all demographics,” he notes. “More flexible offerings allow an opportunity for employers to cater to the needs of a broad range of employee ages and groups while still providing the basic benefits valued by all.”

Although the appeal and value of specific benefits has always been an individual and personalized issue, it is now a generation-gapping matter of demographics.

Kirby underscores that Calgary’s younger-than-average workforce demographics make providing targeted benefits options and programs somewhat unique, and points out that flexibility of choice with features like health spending and wellness accounts continue to be among the top priorities for the younger employee.

“Of course, there is still strong demand for the majority of core benefits like drugs, dental and disability,” says Paula Allen, vice president, Research, Analytics and Innovation at Morneau Shepell, Canada’s leading provider of technology-enabled HR services. “But employees are also interested in non-traditional benefits as well as the flexibility about how benefit dollars are allocated. It’s all part of a general social trend and generational expectation of personalization,” she notes.

According to trends, particularly in the Calgary market, the shift in workplace generations continues to make health, wellness and rejuvenation options dynamic versus the formula of one entrenched and defined plan. “Flexibility continues to be an important component of compensation for employees,” Kirby says.

“Increasingly, employees are interested in work-life balance, which can be achieved with additional vacation, Friday afternoons off in the summer or the ability to work remotely. Employees are increasingly looking for wellness benefits such as gym memberships and fitness equipment.

“On the horizon, we see new and innovative solutions that are being rolled out to the marketplace, such as access to tele-medicine providers or charitable giving options that allow employees to have employers’ matching be invested in a charity of the employee’s choice.”

In the past five years or so, the wants and needs of the contemporary employees have been transforming some workplace health, wellness and rejuvenation benefit specifics.

Allen details an increase in the use of high cost specialty medication being used for a wider range of conditions. “There has been a trend toward increasing the amount of coverage available for psychological services in health plans, from $500 to $1,500-$5,000 or more annually. More younger employees than before are using the drug plan for mental health related medication.”

She also notes that health spending accounts have slowly started to get more attention as an option to cover medical cannabis, and some employers are looking to non-traditional benefits such as pet insurance and sabbatical options to meet the needs of a diverse workforce.

While the focus continues on the wellness and personalized (and sometimes unconventional) features and benefits of company health and wellness benefits, there is some HR industry concern – despite the current priorities of the younger employees – about the devalued role of pension and retirement benefit programs.

“Regardless of demographics, retirement plans are more important ever,” Allen emphasizes, “especially now with longer lifespans and higher expectations regarding post-retirement lifestyles. Many employers are investing in education campaigns to help employees understand this.”

Kirby echoes the importance. “With savings rates at an all-time historic low in Canada, employees and employers should have an increased interest in group savings plans. Group savings options, designed with entrepreneurial companies in mind, can be easily integrated into a benefits offering. It’s a great way for a company to tell its employees that their wellbeing is important.”

There is subtle industry concern that some entrepreneurial companies aggravate the employee’s low priority about retirement planning by offering other contemporary and trendy benefits such as flex time and additional vacation, in lieu of long term retirement plans.

Benjamin’s take on health, wellness and rejuvenation policies in the workplace is positive and challenging. “Companies can’t outsource a healthy workplace culture. They need to own it. There should be visible senior leadership buy-in that walks the talk. Employees should have a voice and companies must break away from a static state, where mental health and wellness are sensitive topics.”

He urges companies to have a curious mindset and to explore ways to make the workplace a healthier place.