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Driven by online access to better information and new technologies that enable the regular tracking and management of overall health, Canadians are really starting to pay attention to their overall well being. Many are also making the connection between health and wealth — realizing that satisfaction at work and stress over finances really do impact wellness.

This connection between health and wealth prompted a proactive response from many employers. These days, companies focused on growth and longevity realize the importance of supporting employee well-being. As a result, many firms now offer holistic wellness programs, including benefits that empower staff to better manage their physical, mental and financial health. Known as “benefit” programs, these employer-driven incentives include everything from fitness and counselling programs to savings and investment plans and advice.

It doesn’t stop there. Forward-thinking firms realize that to attract and retain workers, which is increasingly critical in today’s competitive job market, something more multi-faceted has to be offered. Health and wellness plans, savings programs and now the latest technologies are all used to engage employees — and this employee retention strategy continues to grow.

Employer-sponsored programs are being updated and transformed amid rising costs of health care, including for prescription medications, as well as the growing prevalence of chronic diseases and mental health issues. Employers are managing these added pressures with the understanding that employee wellness goes beyond helping them pay for their medical and dental appointments or topping up their retirement plans. These days, the aim is to enable workers to make better decisions about their health and financial well-being, so they can focus on present-day deadlines which more positively impacts future goals

“Personal health and financial wellness go hand-in-hand,” says David Charbonneau, senior vice-president, group retirement and savings at Desjardins. “Employers know that financial stress can impact employees’ health, so we work closely with them to identify the right workplace savings plans and preventive wellness strategies for their employees.”

Benefits changing with the times

Having a benefits package that meets employee needs is more important than ever to attract and retain staff, in particular, the more career-transient millennial generation, which accounts for about half of today’s workforce.

“As millennials reach new milestones in their lives, they’re realizing how important benefits can be, and they have much higher expectations for online and mobile services,” says Josée Dixon, senior vice-president, group and business insurance at Desjardins. “They’re used to having everything, literally, at their fingertips. We’ve developed apps to give them that same convenience with their group benefits. A travel app that has a multi-lingual translation service, and that can show them the closest healthcare facility, and store important medical information, like their blood type and allergies, if they get sick or injured while on holiday. Our drug claim app tells them if their medication is covered, how much money they’ll get back for their claim, how much less they’ll pay for a generic drug and even which nearby pharmacy will give them the best price.”

Other generations also have specific needs. For instance, Dixon says Generation X employees are often dealing with the stress and time constraints of caring for young children and ageing parents while working full-time. “They want flexible working hours and generous family leave policies to help them cope,” she says, while baby boomers are generally more concerned with health issues and retirement planning. Generation Z, which has just started entering the workforce, is just getting to know the different benefit options available to them — and they are sure to leave their mark, eventually.

“This growing acknowledgement that ‘one size no longer fits all’ means introducing digital advice-based solutions to support individual personas.”

Dixon says employers are challenged to create benefit plans for the various generations that all work together. It’s why insurers and employers are developing more flexible plans to meet these different needs and expectations. “Prevention versus treatment for millennials, for example,” she says. “And health spending accounts and wellness accounts that let plan members spend their health benefit dollars to meet their unique needs. We’re also focusing more on mental health, wellness promotion and work-life balance, which are all so closely connected. Online and mobile services are a major focus, too. Younger employees don’t want to have to go through a call centre – they want easy-to-access personalized help, but they want it virtually”.

Given this transforming workforce, Charbonneau recommends employers offer creative and innovative ways to connect with the multi-generational workforce and increase engagement. “Using a multi-channel approach to leverage the use of personalized videos, augmented reality, gamification and social media, is important, if not essential,” he says. “Innovative technology is a great way to personalize communications and make sure everyone gets a message and experience that resonates with them.”

Employers should also be stepping up to help employees with their retirement plans, amid an ongoing gravitation away from defined benefit (DB) plans and towards defined contribution (DC) plans — a shift that has put the liability of retirement funding on to the employee. Charbonneau says employers are increasingly shifting to assist employees by providing access to smarter investment solutions and providing support in making investment decisions that meet their individual retirement needs and goals. “This growing acknowledgement that ‘one size no longer fits all’ means introducing digital advice-based solutions to support a personalized experience and focusing on savings more than just retirement,” says Charbonneau.

There’s also a need for more education, including showing employees all of the benefits available to them and ensuring they understand what their employer is offering. For instance, Charbonneau says Desjardins has a team of education advisors that provides group sessions, one-on-one meetings and webinars to reach plan members and educate them when they’re most receptive. “Our team is always focused on plan members’ best interests to provide education and suggest the next best action throughout the various life stages to help them achieve their personal goals,” he says.

Charbonneau says employers are increasingly willing to partner with benefits providers like Desjardins to develop innovative solutions to respond to their employees’ needs. “Co-creating with our clients is something we take pride in,” he says. “We listen to our plan sponsors’ needs, and with their guidance and feedback paired with our expertise we are able to fine-tune initiatives that will respond to their plan members’ concerns and needs.”

He says building strong relationships with employers is part of the cooperative model that Desjardins was built on since it was created more than a century ago, and strengthens the solutions offered to those who need it most, the employees.

A long history of holistic, community-driven solutions

Desjardins was founded on the principles of fair play and community-mindedness ever since Alphonse Desjardins opened the first office in 1900. Desjardins was started to improve conditions for working Canadians and contribute to their overall economic development. It has since grown to become the leading cooperative financial group in Canada and the 4th safest bank in North America.

“We still abide by these cooperative principles,” says Dixon, citing a $100-million development fund created by current president Guy Cormier to support regional projects, entrepreneurship, business development and economic and social innovation. Every year, Desjardins gives back to communities across Canada by investing in and sponsoring a wide range of local initiatives that help to improve people’s physical and mental health and promote financial literacy for people of all ages. One example is the health hackathons Desjardins sponsors in different cities across Canada, which are 48-hour innovation marathons dedicated to finding practical solutions to health challenges. Desjardins was the first insurer in Canada to get involved in a health hackathon.

“Overall, our closeness to our clients and communities gives us better insight into what they need and expect,” says Dixon. An example is the sleep disorder screening and treatment program Desjardins helped develop with 2015 hackathon winner, HALEO. “Better sleep means better health and quality of life for plan members and a more productive and engaged workforce for employers.”

Desjardins prides itself on being an adaptive, responsive plan provider to help employers address a wide-range of issues such as workforce shortages, changing legislation, rising costs of pharmaceuticals and increased consumer expectations amid rapidly advancing technology.

People expect more from their employers today, and today’s workforce has many different personas, which translates into many different needs and goals, says Dixon. “It’s also a very competitive market out there and it’s more important than ever to be adaptive and responsive to a client’s special requests and unique goals.”

Desjardins also customizes strategies for employers through a business intelligence service that analyzes plan member behaviour and calibrates an engagement level. “By using a proprietary algorithm to aggregate data and taking into account our plan members’ interests, motivations and knowledge, we can conduct a behavioural analysis to define plan member engagement levels,” says Charbonneau. “Once we know these engagement levels, we can deploy targeted messaging, experiences and education strategies to generate better member outcomes.”

The Desjardins approach adapts to different employer cultures and generational perspectives, and to where plan members are in their own savings journey. Whether just joining a new company, dealing with an unexpected challenge or making the transition to retirement. The approach can be as simple as tailoring the communication to employees using personalized videos or non-retirement language to get them more comfortable and engaged. Perhaps hosting innovative forums like a “financial happy hour” on or off-site focused on maximizing the benefits of the plans available to them and learning budgeting skills, about debt and savings – using interactive, mobile quizzes and other engagement tools.

“We advise plan members and give them the tools they need to make well-informed health choices,” says Dixon. “Online health assessment tools and proactive counselling if they’re at risk for a chronic illness, constant personal support to help them adhere to difficult treatment programs, and an automatic renewal and free delivery service for ongoing prescriptions so they’ll never run out. Right now, we’re piloting a virtual care service that will give plan members immediate access to a nurse or doctor through chats and videoconferencing. Constantly evolving, adaptable services promote healthy habits and help plan members achieve overall wellness.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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