Flex Plans

The future looks more flexible, with HR and benefits policies focused on employee mental health, virtual health care and financial well-being

Employee benefits in 2021 will likely look significantly different than in 2020 or even 2019. The crisis marked a turning point, which is expected to propel employers, as well as the human resources and benefits industries, into a new future, one that includes more flexibility, enhanced mental-health supports and virtual health care, and a focus on how employees actually want to work.

More flexibility

If it’s possible to find a silver lining in the pandemic, it is that it’s demonstrated the feasibility of an agile workplace. With the majority of Canadian employees working from home over the past months, employers can now reconsider the out-of-date definitions of a workplace and a workday.

Employers that have traditionally said flexible working arrangements weren’t a possibility will now be forced to change their tune. “Simply saying it won’t work won’t fly anymore as their workforce demonstrated that they could do it — and do it successfully,” says Arla Day, Professor of Organizational Psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

In addition to facilitating workplace flexibility, the pandemic is also likely to make benefits plans more flexible going forward, with employers considering adjustments to reflect the new work dynamic. Kim Siddall, vice-president and local practice leader at Aon, says employers are being more critical, from both cost and support perspectives.

Staying flexible during a pandemic.

“They want to ensure their employees have the tools they need to manage their health and well-being. In order to manage total compensation budgets, however, there may be some juggling of how the budget is spent, or an offer of more voluntary benefits so employees can choose to participate but the employer doesn’t attract more cost. If employers continue to provide the ability for people to work remotely, they’ll need a strong partner for disability adjudication, as aspects like accommodation will now evolve.” 

Julie Stich, Vice-President of Content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, says future changes in plan design are likely to focus on coverage options for mental health support, including enhanced virtual care and employee assistance program services, as well as more resources and better communications tools.

From a financial uncertainty perspective, she expects to see more financial education, tools and resources to help with budgeting and credit. For employees balancing work and family responsibilities, she anticipates expanded leave options and flexibility around work hours.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution for employers, because each employee’s situation is unique,” says Stich. “Now is the time for employers to thoughtfully examine how their benefit plans can best support their employees’ health and financial well-being and security.” 

Whether physical, mental or financial, employers have increased their support for employee well-being during this challenging time, and that’s expected to continue into the future. “COVID really opened up people’s eyes as to the challenges and struggles that our family, friends and coworkers are dealing with and hopefully brought people together,” says Day. “It would be a shame if organizations couldn’t continue their support of workers, developing this sense of community and mutual respect, which in turn can increase worker functioning and business success.”

Antoinette Blunt, President of Ironside Consulting Services, expects benefits providers will continue to be innovative in finding new ways to address increasing mental health problems. “People talk about getting back to normal, but our world will never be quite the same, and that’s hard for people to both understand and accept. The re-opening of our economy with public health measures put in place is all about finding a way to live with the virus, but until we have a vaccine, we can’t let down our guard. Living with that constant state of uncertainly and fear creates more stress and anxiety for all of us.”

Virtual health care

During the pandemic, a number of new virtual health care services were rolled out, and many of Canada’s largest insurers partnered with telemedicine providers to make the services available through their group benefits plans. In April, both Walmart Canada and Vancouver City Savings Credit Union rolled out a free virtual care platform for employees.

With the industry moving quickly to virtual care, health care providers had to quickly understand the regulatory requirements for safe delivery, and insurers had to understand the scope of delivery in order to make a decision about reimbursement under the terms of benefits plan contracts, says Joan Weir, Director of Health and Disability Policy at the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association. “As well, each province had different requirements about whether regular care or only emergency care would be delivered virtually.”

Going Virtual in a Pandemic information.

Going forward, while regular in-person care is beginning to re-open for many practitioners, some level of virtual care is expected to continue, she adds. “It has become the norm over the last few years for [internet-based cognitive behavioural] therapies and other counselling to be delivered virtually. Employees have become savvy in accessing care virtually and many seem to prefer it.”

A survey conducted for the Canadian Medical Association in June found 91% of Canadians who had used virtual care since the pandemic outbreak said they were satisfied with the service, and 46% said they would prefer a virtual method as a first point of contact with their doctor.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are also expected to provide quality virtual interventions in the future, according to Sean Slater, Executive Vice-President of Sales and Marketing at Homewood Health Inc. “We talk a lot about measurement-based approaches and to make sure our interventions are having the anticipated impact,” he says. “We will need to demonstrate that our interventions are not just delivering great user-satisfaction scores but also the desired outcome for the user and the employer. EAP providers will also make training, coaching and other supports available to assist employers, employees and managers through this shift.”

While virtual care seems natural for many types of interventions, many other services, such as dental and paramedical visits, can’t be provided virtually. Another survey, published by Green Shield Canada in May, found 62% of respondents said they were open to visiting the dentist in the pre-vaccine period, while just 34% would attend a physiotherapy appointment, 29% would go for a massage and 28% would visit a chiropractor.

Of course, during social distancing measures, dental and paramedical practices were closed, which meant employers weren’t feeling those costs on their benefits plans. But as these services reopen, people will likely be contacted to make appointments for preventive or maintenance care they delayed due to the pandemic. “Employers will likely see an uptick in claims in these areas, but experts are predicting a slow return to pre-pandemic claims volume,” says Stich. 

Coverage for PPEs

While the pandemic is expected to affect the traditional benefits plan, what about the coverage of coronavirus-related expenses?

“Some employees, such as dental assistants and hygienists, will be required to wear full personal protective equipment in order to protect themselves and their patients,” says Weir. “The clinic is typically absorbing the costs of this additional requirement; however, a [plan member] may see these costs passed on to them by their health care professionals through the form of additional fees and services.

Benefits plans may reimburse these costs, but the terms of the contract in place with the employer will determine whether there’s reimbursement or not. These costs may be covered through a health care spending account, so employees should look into that as well.”

Erin Brandt, an employment lawyer and co-founder of PortaLaw in Vancouver, says employers and employees should be mindful of their provincial human rights codes. “Where an employee has a disability that affects their ability to wear PPE, employers may have a duty to accommodate their employee by allowing them to work from home or modifying their duties.”

Return to work

With schools and childcare services shut down during the pandemic, one of the largest impacts on parents was the adjustment to working full time while looking after their children. In the post-coronavirus world, employers will have to rethink how to support employees with these types of responsibilities, says Day.

“COVID effectively showed us that we — as parents and organizational leaders — need to develop alternative child care plans; that is, the issue really hits home if these types of care facilities aren’t available. At that point, it’s challenging to think of how to accommodate [employees] — perhaps options for reduced hours or flexible timing of work so that parents can split care responsibilities.”

Return to work sidebar.

Siddall also anticipates more flexibility from employers, especially around time, allowing employees more choice about how they put in their eight hours each day. “The pandemic is giving employers the impetus to really reconsider what work looks like and employees the opportunity to demonstrate efficacy in pivoting to a non-traditional work arrangement.”

Going forward, one of the key issues will be leadership, Day adds, noting effective, supportive leadership is essential during times of crises. “Successful organizations will provide the support and training for leaders so they can support their workers.” 

Blunt also urges employers to look at their workplace policies, especially around sick leave, to ensure they’re prepared to address a situation where an employee tests positive for the virus. “The cost of sick leave to the employer and the employee will most likely be significant, especially if a positive test means reducing the number of employees at work or even closing the business temporarily. I am certain the employers are going to face increases in benefits premiums as well.”

In terms of a return to work, Slater says managers will have to stay focused on the fact that the mental health of their team members won’t immediately return to its prior state. “In fact, employees are expressing anxiety about returning to the workplace; they’re concerned about the possibility of becoming infected and bringing that home. In many cases, they’ve also been out of the team space for months, so returning to that dynamic is concerning, especially if they’ve enjoyed working from home. The team dynamic, individual performance and any other issues that existed on the day before everyone was sent home will likely still exist on the day they come back, so being sensitive to the evolving dynamic is key and taking the opportunity to address those concerns is paramount.”[/restrict]

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Written By

Kyla Colburn is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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