Editorial: Looking back — and ahead — in an unprecedented year

This month marks the two-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring the coronavirus a global pandemic. In some ways, we’ve come a long way since then, but in others, we’re hovering close to where it all started.

One thing is for sure: the pandemic continues to create a through line in Benefits Canada’s content as we enter the 25th month since we started digging into all of the ways it’s affecting employers, employees and their benefits and pension plans.

In addition to an increased use of medications for mental-health issues, the pandemic is raising questions about new antiviral treatments for coronavirus infections, including how they might be covered as they come to market, according to the annual Drug Plan Trends Report. The federal government’s latest fiscal update said there’s money for these treatments, but that doesn’t mean the costs won’t eventually hit private plans.

Read: 2022 Drug Plan Trends Report: High-cost drugs, DEI shaping drug plans

Read: What do rising inflation, interest rates mean for pension de-risking?

Meanwhile, defined benefit pension plan sponsors are paying close attention to rising inflation and interest rates. After several bumpy months off the start of the pandemic, 2021 saw DB plans improve their funded statuses following strong equity market performance and slightly improved longer-term bond yields, according to the Pension Feature. Indeed, Canadian DB plans hit their best funded position in two decades last year, which experts say makes it the perfect time to look at de-risking strategies.

Pension plan sponsors are also following trends and opportunities for their real estate portfolios. While investment in this asset class set a record in the third quarter of 2020, the arrival of the Omicron variant once again delayed some return-to-office plans, fuelling talk about the subsequent impact on real estate investing. But the latest wave may not be the death knell for office real estate that many were predicting, as the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan and Western University share in the Investment Feature.

Read: Pension plan sponsors push on with real estate investments despite Omicron setback

Read: How LifeLabs redesigned its RRSP-DPSP to maximize employee engagement

On the other side of the pension spectrum, plan sponsors are exploring other savings vehicles as the pandemic drags on. For example, the Employer Strategy explores LifeLabs Inc.’s overhaul of its registered retirement savings plan and deferred profit-sharing plan. A plan redesign is a good option for employers looking to remain competitive in their industries, as labour shortages and a new way of working may be pushing employees to consider other job opportunities. As well, employers should be regularly benchmarking their retirement savings plans, which can help them get ahead of this trend.

At the core of LifeLabs’ RRSP-DPSP redesign was the need to further engage employees. Another way employers can hold staff interest, especially as the pandemic raises questions about changing jobs, is to consider offering an employee share ownership plan. Of course, if employees have a financial stake in their employer, it can raise engagement and also help increase financial well-being.

In the Head to Head, two experts debate the topic. One columnist is based in the U.S. and provides a solid overview of the U.S. ESOP, which has been legislated for nearly 50 years. Over that time, data has shown that employee-owned companies are more competitive and create more jobs, while employee-owners have significantly higher financial security. During a time when that type of security is hard to come by, could Canadian ESOPs be improved from a tax perspective to make them more attractive to employers and employees alike?

Read: Head to Head: Should the U.S. ESOP structure be brought to Canada?

As Canadians contemplate the next phase of this pandemic, employers are continuing to feel the pressure on their total rewards packages. It certainly isn’t straightforward, but the more that organizations can engage employees in the benefits and pensions they offer, the more those employees will reap the benefits of improved mental, physical and financial well-being — a win-win for everyone involved.

Jennifer Paterson is the editor of Benefits Canada.