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Executive Pulse seeks input from Canadian leaders on vital issues that affect our business and economy.

Given the ever-increasing demands put on today's employees, from long hours at desk-bound jobs to increasing levels of stress, managing health and wellness is of utmost importance to 21st-century businesses. Michael Serbinis, the founder and chief executive officer of League Inc., a digital health and wellness startup in Toronto, and previously the founder and CEO of digital reading company Kobo Inc., CEO of Three Angels Capital and a director at MaRS Discovery District, lends his thoughts on the topic.

Whose responsibility is employee health, the employer or the employee?

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Certainly in startup companies that live and die by their ability to create something compelling out of nothing, I've always viewed employee health and wellness as directly tied to their ability to be productive and invent and disrupt. It's always been a core part of the culture of my startups, but as I see it today, health and wellness is the new pension. It's an expectation, it's absolutely a competitive advantage and I don't think it's a choice any more. It's mandatory for CEOs and executive teams to be investing in their employees. There are all kinds of studies out there, but certainly I've seen that a dollar invested in health and wellness drops absenteeism, raises productivity and just drives engagement overall.

Given that survival and profit are businesses' bottom-line requirements, should they concern themselves with their employees' physical and mental health?

I think it's changing, where health and wellness are top of mind. Certainly with trends of mental-health challenges, obesity, diabetes – these are all things that can put people out of action and make them not productive in an enterprise, small or large. I can tell you, with a small- or medium-sized business, pressures are as high or higher than ever before and stress is becoming a chronic issue that employers need to consider, so it's a no-brainer from a cost or productivity standpoint.

What about small businesses and startups that may not have the resources to focus on anything beyond survival?

Even small businesses provide health benefits. In Canada, if you look at extended health care, about 90 per cent of people that have access to some kind of health benefits or extended plan, but a small percentage use them. Part of that is it's just difficult to access: It's a hassle to read through your various booklets and forms. And part of it is that what's being offered in a one-size-fits-all system just doesn't work for employees – you can imagine the difference between a millennial and a Gen-Xer with three kids. So there's money there, it just isn't being used well and I think that's something that can be fixed. Services need to be consumer-centric and employers should only pay for what's used and employees need easy access in a cost-effective way.

For the individual, how realistic is emphasizing self-help and personal responsibility for one's health and well-being?

Accessing health and wellness has historically been challenging. How do I find the right person to talk to? Who do I even go to for help? But if you make all those aspects frictionless and the hassle really goes away, I think it's absolutely realistic for that individual. The idea of a consumer-driven one-stop shop where people can discover health providers for whatever their personal plan is, schedule appointments, and pay in a frictionless way, becomes very attractive.

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Do efforts to prioritize employee health really have a business advantage, such as retention, productivity, recruitment, or is it simply a nice extra?

In certain industries, health benefits and wellness benefits are the new pension. It's what employees are looking for and they're making their choice [of where to work] based on what employers are offering. So I think it's absolutely key in attracting employees. You see it in the most competitive industries for people: tech, media, advertising, all the STEM industries, where there's high competition for talent. Employers are offering increasing health and wellness benefits, which makes sense, because not only is it an attractive thing to get employees interested, but it's a necessary part of working in what are very knowledge worker-centric, stressful jobs. So keeping people balanced, keeping people healthy, keeping people well is an important part of retaining employees. And then, of course, there is avoiding the costs of long-term disabilities due to mental-health issues or other chronic disease.

Given the priority that the next generation of workers seems to put on themselves and achieving a positive work-life balance, how important will this area be in the coming years?

It's what the next generation of workers is looking for and this next generation of workers expects things to be available 24/7, on demand, from the touch of a smartphone, and they frankly don't expect a one-size-fits-all plan. They expect a world that is not only easy and convenient and consumer driven, but they also want it personalized, where they get to choose, versus an older, more patriarchal model, where the company chooses that you shall have no more than one chiropractor visit per year, for instance. I think it will matter a lot more with millennials and this whole new generation of knowledge workers.

Responses have been edited and condensed.

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