What's the top influence on employers' benefit strategies?

As employers face a range of obstacles, steering the right course on benefit strategy is more challenging than ever

What's the top influence on employers' benefit strategies?
Anne-Marie Nawar, Advisor, Group Insurance Plans and Canadian Health and Benefits Insights & Solutions Leader, WTW

As companies grapple with attracting and retaining talent, investment in employee benefits remains a top priority for Canadian employers, says the ‘2023 Canadian Benefits Trends Survey’ from global advisory, broking, and solutions company, WTW.

The survey says competition for talent (84%) and rising mental health issues (63%) are the top two issues influencing employer’s benefit strategies, followed by a focus on inclusion and diversity (48%) and rising costs (40%).

“Employee benefits are significant differentiators in attracting and retaining talent,” says Anne-Marie Nawar, Canadian Health and Benefits Insights & Solutions Leader, WTW. “We increasingly see organizations apply employee listening and analytics around the employee experience to inform their benefits strategy as an employer of choice.”

A key area of focus for employers is to ensure that benefit plans meet the needs of all employees (50%) and employee wellbeing (45%). As they look to meet these needs, employers plan to prioritize mental health support (77%), health benefits (59%), and inclusion and diversity (44%).

Benefit costs top challenge

At the same time, Canadian employers anticipate cost to be a top challenge for benefit budgets with the impact of inflation (40%) accentuating those concerns in the next two years. As a result, managing plan costs is another key area of focus for most (59%) employers.

“Cost has always been a factor for companies,” says Nawar. “But this year, employers also face high inflation and a weakening business environment. However, because benefits are a differentiator in attracting and retaining talent, it becomes a balance of how to offer that differentiating benefit plan while coping with rising cost issues.”

Employers are using a variety of strategies and tools to keep costs at bay while enhancing the benefit offering. For example, virtual care is a trend that has rapidly evolved since the pandemic. Today, “it’s pretty common to include virtual care in benefits programs, specifically for mental health and other health issues. However, the evolution towards virtual care didn’t originate to reduce costs, it was more about giving greater access and having mental health as a key area of focus.

Greater access to mental health care

“We've seen enhanced coverage in that area [mental health]. Employers are working with maximums to make sure there is no barrier to access to those services. Virtual care is part of that greater access. Also, the types of practitioners that are covered around mental health have expanded over the last few years. This gives greater access and can be less costly.”

Nawar adds, “Good communication is also fundamental. Employees need to feel supported, especially when it comes to making important life decisions around health, financial wellbeing, and retirement,” says Nawar. The research shows that employees turn to employers for this type of support, so good communication will go a long way to provide a positive employee experience.

Ultimately, employers need to make sure that their benefits meet the needs of all employees, that they focus on overall well being, and that they meet the criteria of health equity. Meeting these key points will ensure the employer is in a good market position to attract and retain talent, and that employees feel secure in their overall wellbeing so they can be present, engaged, and productive at work.

Employers are faced with reshaping their benefits strategies amid increasing focus on wellbeing and employee experience. The survey shows most (77%) employers want to integrate wellbeing into the benefit package, half want to increase flexibility and choice, and 45% want inclusion and diversity in the benefits provision. Seventy percent will offer an enhanced digital strategy to personalize the employee experience of benefits within two years.