The days are gone when employers can just offer traditional health and dental benefits and call it a day. Every employer today has to think outside the box to build a total compensation package that stands out. 

When the pandemic hit, Willful, an online estate planning company, tweaked its benefits offerings to stay competitive. For instance, the public health crisis sent the travel industry grinding to a halt, so the vacation fund became moot. The organization replaced it with two options for employees to choose from — they can either put that money into a health-care spending account or into a registered retirement savings plan with an employer match.

In addition, the company increased its personal days from five to ten annually, added access to virtual therapy, equipped employees with standing desks and other home office equipment and provided an annual home office budget. It also expanded the categories under its health-care spending account to include services such as Uber Eats and online fitness classes.

Jump in the pool

A vast majority of employers across Canada are considered small- to mid-sized and many simply don’t offer benefits.

“What we’re seeing now is that employers can’t afford not to have a benefits program,” says Alaina Mackenzie, regional vice-president of business development at Medavie Blue Cross. “The value proposition that employers bring to the table positions them as the employer of choice for prospective employees and their benefits programs are part and parcel of that employee value proposition.”

As a small company in a competitive labor market, Willful had learned to be proactive in reviewing its benefits offering, making changes as required to stand out to prospective employees. So what steps can other small- and mid-sized employers take to offer benefits programs to compete with some of their larger counterparts?

Pooled products — entry level benefits plans with a drug cap or a flat-rate amount — help small- to mid-sized employers avoid the weight of high claims and deliver more predictable renewal fees, says Mackenzie, noting they also allow employers to pass risk to the carrier.

Tell a story

To compete with larger organizations in recruiting talent, small- to mid-sized employers should be crystal clear about who they are and how their total compensation package aligns with that, says Kim Siddall, vice-president of enterprise consulting for the west at People Corporation. For example, if an employer is known for being innovative or as a disruptor, its benefits offerings should reflect that.

“People are making decisions about prospective employers with their hearts and are looking for companies with values that align with their own. Companies don’t have to compete on wages or pay. They can tell a greater story about how they look after employees through their benefits, work-life balance and community or social action opportunities.”

Be flexible, accessible and personal

Another small employer, with around 70 employees, Endy aims to provide a benefits package that’s equitable and offers choice.

In 2017, the e-commerce furniture company settled on offering a health-care spending account — with more funds than are typically allotted to this type of benefit — to cover employees’ medical, dental and vision care needs. Employees can also opt to put the money, all or in part, into a wellness account.

“Everyone receives the same amount and it’s up to them to decide how to allocate the funds,” says Hemalee Sisodraker, Endy’s director of people and culture.

Recently, the company expanded its health-care spending account to cater to employees looking for a more structured benefits plan. Under the change, staff can now use the account to purchase traditional benefits through a carrier of their choice.

Since employees use digital applications for most parts of their lives, it’s also important for employers to consider the online accessibility of their benefits programs. Essentially, they’re competing for their plan members’ attention so access should be front and center, says Potvin.

Now, it’s about personalization, she notes, referring to services like pharmacogenetics that map out the right medication for a specific plan member. It’s also about personal experiences, she says, such as on-demand access to internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy that takes a more individualized approach to people’s health-care needs. “It’s providing flexibility in a much broader sense.”

Get the skinny on employee makeup

Alongside the focus on personalization, it’s also crucial for employers to know their employee demographics and what’s important to them, says Siddall. She suggests plan sponsors compare their offerings to their competitors or to industry benchmarks to ensure their plans aren’t eroded by inflation and take employee feedback into account.

Today, up to five different generations make up an employer’s workforce, so benefits programs are no longer a one size fits all, says Mackenzie, noting it’s important for them to meet the needs of every generation.

It’s the little things

Many of the benefits and perks that smaller companies are offering to employees don’t require huge cash investments.

One example is the provision of extra personal days. “It may cost in terms of productivity, but for us we’re pretty clear about our goals as a company. Everyone has their own responsibilities and people meet their expectations and don’t abuse the time off that we give them.


“We’ve found that a lot of the things that have had the most positive impact on our employees haven’t cost any money at all.”

Source: 2021 Benefits Canada

By the numbers:
78% of Canadian employers said they provide a traditional benefits plan, while the remaining 22% provide a flexible plan that allows employees to choose levels of coverage.

39% of respondents provide a health-care spending account in 2021, up 16 percentage points since last year’s survey.

Smaller employers (65%) were less likely than larger employers (79%) to describe their benefits plan as excellent or very good.

Among employee respondents, those working in smaller organizations (fewer than 50 staff) were more likely (87%) to indicate they have a workplace wellness culture.

Mixing it up:
To offset a talent shortage, Canadian employers are offering a combination of incentives to attract and retain talent, according to a survey published by Manpower Group Canada in October 2021. It found:

·  41% are adopting more flexible work schedules;
·  40% are increasing training, skills development or mentoring;
·  32% are increasing wages;
·  32% are allowing more flexible work locations;
·  20% are providing more non-financial benefits, such as vacation;
·  19% are using incentives such as signing bonuses; and
·  19% are lowering required job skills. or experience.

Key takeaways:
• In a pandemic-fueled tight labor market, an employer’s suite of benefits and perks can make or break their talent recruitment and retention efforts.

• Small- and mid-sized employers should focus on providing flexibility in choice in their benefits offerings and ensure they suit the needs of their entire workforce.

• Sometimes it’s the little things — the perks that come at little to no cost to the employer — that have the biggest impact.

Source: 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey