Has the war for talent ushered in a golden era for health benefits plans and wellness programs? The 25th annual Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey appears to suggest that.

While “golden” may be too strong a word, given competing pressures for sustainability, today’s market certainly does reflect a changing mindset for a growing number of plan sponsors, says Gord Hart, president and CEO of Selectpath Benefits & Financial in London, Ontario.

“Just in last six to 12 months I’ve seen a significant shift. The majority of employers are looking to lead recruitment with benefits as part of their value proposition versus it being a lagging requirement,” he explains. “Benefits are becoming more of a meaningful part of total compensation versus that necessary expense.”

Gord Hart Image

Gord Hart, Selectpath Benefits & Financial

Hart is a member of the advisory board for the 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the annual survey of plan members and the 11th year surveying plan sponsors. A preview of results was released in the August issue of Benefits Canada magazine, with the full report available on September 21.

This year’s survey found that plan sponsors are most likely to be concerned about the competitiveness of their health benefits plan, ahead of long-standing concerns over sustainability.

“Benefits are shifting from a CFO focus to more of a CEO and/or CWO focus. Advisors are hearing more about chief wellness officers than we’ve ever heard before,” says Hart.

Investing in wellness

The Benefits Canada survey indicates that, in the next three years, 75% of plan sponsors anticipate dedicating funds and/or staff resources in at least one wellness area outside of the traditional health benefits plan. They are most likely to invest in mental health (46%), and a number also plan to invest in physical fitness (32%), the prevention of illness and/or management of chronic disease (30%), social health (28%) and financial health (26%).

“Where there is a shortage of talent and wages are similar, the wellness culture and a holistic view of benefits and compensation are coming to the forefront as differentiating factors,” says Hart.

For their part, plan members appear to be more appreciative of what their employers are doing to support health. For example, 77% described the quality of their health benefits plan as excellent, up from 68% in 2020 (recorded before the pandemic). Just 18% felt it was just adequate, down from 29%.

“It’s interesting that more members are positive about their plan when there really hasn’t been dramatic changes in coverage for most,” notes Hart. “This could reflect that people sourced elements they haven’t before, such as the employee assistance program and mental-health counselling, as well as virtual care, which really rose to prominence during the pandemic, and their interaction and experience with these elements has been good.”

Push to personalize

Flexibility and personalization also play a big part. In the past five years, Hart has seen the proportion of clients with modular flex plans grow from about two per cent to about 20%. And the survey found that, among surveyed plan sponsors, the proportion of plans with health spending accounts has increased from 31% in 2017 to 48% in 2022, and wellness accounts have increased from 14% to 30%.

“There is a bit of a push-pull with how much personalization we can offer while still keeping an eye on plan sponsors’ second-biggest concern, which is sustainability, but a lot can be achieved when it’s done strategically,” says Hart.

Communications is an increasingly important part of the strategy. In fact, plan sponsors can grow the value of their benefits simply by more effectively communicating what’s already available. “Not so long ago, our primary job as advisors was to serve as facilitators. Now we are primarily educators. We educate members about the program, how it works, what their decision points are, and so on. We are engaging the population around their total compensation.”