Telus Communications Inc. recognizes that all employees manage their health and well-being in different ways, so it allows staff to choose how they use the company’s flexible wellness offering — they can take time off to enjoy a staycation, pay down student loans or top up their health-care spending accounts.

“We provide [employees] with credits in our flex plan and those credits are equal to three days of pay,” says Carol Craig, the telecommunications company’s director of pension and benefits.

The organization has aligned the flex plan with its well-being strategy, which recognizes the whole person and includes five dimensions — physical, psychological, social, financial and environmental wellness. “We recognize everyone is different and are going to use their credits in different ways and we wanted to . . . empower [employees] by offering personalized total rewards that support [their] well-being and diversity.”

Read: IKEA Canada rolls out wellness days for employees’ personal needs

It’s not unusual for employers to provide a flexible benefits plan that lets employees sell vacation days and convert that money to taxable cash or deposit it in a lifestyle or retirement account, says Kim Siddall, vice-president of enterprise consulting for the west at People Corporation Inc.

Allowing employees to sell time off depends on how robust a company’s flex system is because redirecting dollars either takes a lot of manual intervention or a complex system to direct it properly, she says, noting many employees choose to take it in taxable cash because it’s the easiest option from an administrative perspective.

“Personal days used to come with a lot of strings attached to them — like what is an acceptable use of [these] days —and that’s loosening.”

The importance of downtime

By the numbers

20% of employees forfeited their paid time off in 2020;

43% said they plan to take more than three weeks of vacation time in 2021;

32% said they can’t fully disconnect while on vacation; and

50% said they’re ready for an “awaycation,” to travel and completely disconnect from work.

Robert Half Canada survey, October 2020

Since the coronavirus pandemic grounded planes and brought the global tourism industry grinding to a halt, people have been reluctant to take time off work, with many opting to forego vacations until they can once again safely board a plane to exotic locations.

Read: Half of Canadians taking less time off in December due to pandemic: survey

A December 2020 survey conducted on behalf of ADP Canada Co. found 43 per cent of working Canadians used less than half of their vacation allotment in 2020, while a quarter didn’t use any of their vacation time. About a quarter (28 per cent) of those who said they’re taking less or no time off due to the pandemic plan to carry their vacation time over into 2021.

Taking time off work often used to mean getting away to spend time with family, says Siddall, but now that more people are working from home with their family members just a few feet away, they’re finding it difficult to justify the need for that time off. But taking downtime is important for employees’ well-being, she adds, particularly during these fraught times.

Michael French, regional vice-president at Robert Half Canada Inc., says the coronavirus crisis has led to a loss of delineation between the office and home spaces. Employers must recognize this is leading to burnout, he says, and if they don’t start figuring out ways to deal with it, it’s going to cause a ripple effect to their organization.

Read: Employee burnout surges amid coronavirus pandemic: survey

An October 2020 survey by the recruitment consultancy found a third (33 per cent) of employees are more burned out on the job than they were in 2019. French points out that burnout can lead to absenteeism, presenteeism or a toxic workplace.

Incentivizing breaks

In the U.S., many companies are enticing workers to take a wellness break through cash bonuses.

In a post on LinkedIn in April 2021, Tim Ryan, a senior partner and chairperson at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said the company will give US$250 to employees each time they take a full week’s vacation for the next year. And Bart Lorang, chief executive officer of marketing company FullContact Inc., said in a blog post on the organization’s website that employees who have been with the company for more than a year will receive US$7,500 in bonuses for travel.

In 2020, Telus recognized employees weren’t taking their vacation so it implemented a one-time option to defer that time, says Craig. “We’re now trying to promote taking time off regardless, even if it means taking a staycation and getting up in the mornings and going for a walk.”

Read: How Citigroup is using leave policies to support employees amid the pandemic

Recognizing the pandemic’s strain on Canadians’ mental health and well-being, Craig says managers should lead by example and prioritize communicating the importance of taking time off to employees. In addition to its wellness credits, Telus provides employees and their families with $5,000 annually for mental-health practitioners, as well as access to virtual-care programs. It also provides plan members with access to Calm, a well-being mobile app.

Even amid the backdrop of a pandemic, Craig says the majority of employees are actually using their wellness credits to take time off, with many choosing to take all three days off. About 30 per cent are adding some or all of it to their health-care spending accounts and a much smaller number are using it to help pay for student loans.

Telus wants to let employees decide what’s most meaningful for them when they use their credits, she adds. “Employees love the flexibility . . . to choose what they need and they can change that every year at annual enrolment.

Read: Managing the employee mental-health tsunami

“It’s absolutely important that what we do is aligned to the well-being of our [employees]. Taking time to rest and recharge is important for employees now more than ever because they’re working remotely at home and are less connected socially. It’s critical for [employees] to find the time to get away and unplug.”

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.