Poor vision affects productivity and health

Benefit amounts have not increased over the years, so what can companies do to help their employees?

Poor vision affects productivity and health

The number-one complaint we hear from HR leaders is that their employees say they need greater vision coverage. Traditionally, eyeglasses and lenses have been very expensive, and most group benefit plans include some vision coverage, which helps subsidize the cost. However, the amounts haven’t really changed over the years. Employees may have $150 to $200 coverage every 24 months that they can use toward the purchase of glasses – but glasses cost far more than that. So why hasn’t the benefit amount increased? It’s likelytdue to exposure to extremely high claims. If companies offered substantially higher vision coverage, there would be a dollar-for-dollar increase in claims, which would not help at renewal time.

If the benefit amount is not going to change any time soon, what can companies do to help their employees? Recent reports show there is cause for concern, because people – employees – are facing many vision and vision care issues, and this can have an impact on their productivity and health.

Canadians not taking care of their vision

Almost half of Canadians who had vision benefits in 2022 didn’t plan to use their available coverage by the end of that year, says the Canadian Eye Exam Survey by Specsavers. For 2023, the survey reveals that one-in-four Canadians who do not wear corrective lenses have not had an eye exam in at least 10 years, including 10 percent of Canadians who have never had an eye exam. The reasons for not going for an eye exam more frequently include cost (33 percent) and no symptoms of vision loss (22 percent).

In addition, the report says over one-third of Canadians (35 percent) would only book an eye exam if they experienced vision issues. However, catching eye diseases early through a comprehensive eye exam allows for preventative measures to maintain as much vision as possible. What many don’t know is that often, eye diseases such as glaucoma progress without symptoms in the early stages.

Moreover, time at work may be contributing to vision problems, as research now points to prolonged screen time as a cause of or contributor to digital eye strain, dry eye disease, and myopia (nearsightedness).

The World Health Organization (WHO) says increased screen time and time spent indoors are leading to more people suffering from myopia. It says that by 2050, 50 percent of people worldwide will have myopia.

The kicker is that 75 percent of vision loss is preventable and treatable, and half of Canadians don’t know this. Specsavers and the Canadian Council of the Blind say eye exams for those without pre-existing conditions should occur at a minimum of every two years, and every year for Canadians under 18 and over 65.

Employers can play a huge role in prevention

The key to good eye health for the long term is prevention – and employers can play a huge role in preventing vision health issues.

However, if group benefit plans aren’t going to increase vision allowances any time soon, what can Canadian employers do to help their employees?

Employers can start by introducing preferred provider networks – establishing a relationship with a national eyewear company will allow employees to save dollars if they shop at those stores. They can also educate employees on online eyewear companies. These providers might not offer brand-named glasses, but they will keep dollars in employees’ pockets.

The next consideration is removing vision coverage entirely from the benefits plan. If employers increase their vision coverage, they could be penalizing employees who have perfect eyesight. Instead, employers could introduce a health care spending account (HCSA) or increase current allowances. This option adds a tremendous amount of flexibility for all employees.

The addition of eye exam coverage

Finally, since the cost of eye exams seems to be an issue with Canadians, employers should consider changing the eye exam parameters. Most Canadian companies offer a fixed dollar amount toward eye exams every 24 months, perhaps $75 or $100. If employers remove the dollar amount and change it to Reasonable & Customary, they offer far more flexibility to their employees. This means the insurance carrier will approve the exam amount based on the average cost associated within that specific geographical region. If an optometrist charges $100 in Brampton, ON, is that reasonable and customary? If an optometrist charges $150 in Vancouver, BC, is that reasonable and customary?

Improve workplace conditions to prevent eye strain

Employers can also improve conditions within the workplace – whether employees work in the office or from their homes – to help prevent eye strain. Employers can provide information on vision health, encourage workers to have regular eye exams, offer educational interventions, and develop official guidance on safe screen use.

Experts recommend that employees:

  • Limit screen use and take breaks – workers should follow the 20-20-20 rule to reduce digital eye strain. They should spend at least 20 seconds looking at something at least 20 feet away every 20 minutes. Employers can encourage participation by setting timers to prompt employees to take a break.
  • Install screen filters or use computer glasses
  • Go outside or just get up from their desks and move around
  • Ensure their screens at the proper angle to their eyes
  • Move the screen to an angle where they are not straining to look up, and keeping their eyes open wider
  • Use lubrication drops with no preservatives
  • Have safety measures at work, such as protective eyewear or eyewash stations as necessary

In a 2021 report, Fighting Blindness Canada and the Canadian Council of the Blind claimed that, in 2019, vision loss cost Canadians $32.9 billion. Six billion dollars is spent every year on indirect health costs and lost productivity, including reduced workforce participation and productivity, additional time off work due to illness and caretaking, loss of future earnings due to premature mortality, and loss of caregivers’ income.

Employers will benefit from supporting vision health, whether they do that with flexible vision coverage or by creating a workplace where vision health is a priority. They can build a culture that shows employees they care, while at the same time increasing productivity and engagement.

Jamil Jamal and Jeffrey Stinchcombe are partners and benefits consultants at People Corporation