The beginning of the coronavirus pandemic was the catalyst Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd. needed to breathe new life into its employee wellness strategy.

While the public health crisis altered the traditional workplace in many ways, it also inspired employers to listen to employees about the well-being supports they needed most, says Lito Charet, the organization’s vice-president of human resources and inclusion.

Through its employee engagement survey, Imperial Tobacco learned one of the support tools requested by staff was the opportunity to continue learning and growing their careers. The feedback led to the launch, in early 2021, of a digital learning platform under its ‘A Better Tomorrow’ wellness strategy.

Read: Vancouver’s Klue offering workers education benefits, remote work and unlimited time off

Charet considers the platform a great addition to the company’s employee value proposition because it allows the organization to take a proactive approach to the way it leads, supports and develops its staff. The platform’s content includes training courses and articles on various subjects that enhance employees’ ability to work successfully and grow their careers, including digital transformation, agile principles, presentation skills, diversity and inclusion training and well-being exercises.

To ensure staff have time to use the platform, Imperial Tobacco introduced weekly, company-wide learning hours every Friday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. By the end of 2021, the company began to see the fruits of its labour, with its average monthly platform engagement reaching 94 per cent, up from 23 per cent at the beginning of the year.

Meeting the needs of generation Y and Z

By the numbers

• Two-fifths (40%) of Canadian employers are increasing mentoring, training and skills development for employees, according to a survey published by ManpowerGroup Canada in September 2021.

• Among those already offering these types of programs, 57% intend to invest in technical skills, followed by time management and communication skills (56%), manager/leader development training (24%), diversity and inclusion training (23%), compliance training (23%) and career coaching (22%).

Imperial Tobacco isn’t the only organization leveraging career development to enhance its employee value proposition.

A December 2021 survey by Robert Half Canada Inc. found more than a third (36 per cent) of companies are expanding and/or enhancing professional development to retain talent.

Imperial Tobacco’s workforce is mixed generationally, with many employees from generation Y and Z. Nearly 20 per cent of this group joined the organization in the last two years. Younger staff are looking for more empowerment, work-life balance and career development, says Charet, noting the platform was de-signed with these workers in mind.

Read: How can employers turn the ‘Great Resignation’ tide?

But simply offering these programs isn’t enough, says Trina Casey-Myatt, Robert Half Canada’s regional director in Alberta. Indeed, the survey found close to two-thirds (63 per cent) of workers still feel they don’t have a clear path for advancement.

“While we’re seeing that employers are starting to offer more of these opportunities, it’s not necessarily translating to the employees feeling like they’re being invested in and they’re able to see that long-term career path.”

In addition to offering development programs, Casey-Myatt suggests employers ensure their employees set professional development goals and then provide opportunities for them to use their newfound skills. If individuals aren’t sure where their career with the company could go, she says, employers can make suggestions or have them speak with leaders in other departments to show other professional paths they might like to explore.

At Imperial Tobacco, Charet says employees tend to align their course selections with their career aspirations and interests that can help them accelerate to leadership roles within the company.

Standing out in a crowded labour market

The organization’s investment in employee development is helping its attraction and retention efforts, she says, noting staff appreciate the opportunity to learn new skills they can apply in their jobs or in other parts of their lives.

When employers invest in their employees, they’re less likely to leave for other opportunities, says Casey-Myatt. Offering additional skills development, even if it’s in a different direction than their current role, allows people to grow their skills, which employers can use in different departments, she adds.

Read: How Provincial Aerospace promotes employee education

In today’s competitive labour market, individuals are looking for employers that offer them a great starting opportunity and the chance to grow their careers long term, says Casey-Myatt, noting some organizations have had these programs in place for a while, but others are starting to realize that they’re necessary to retain talent.

While boosting morale and enhancing culture are among the benefits of talent retention, she notes it can also impact the business because, when that person leaves, all of their knowledge walks out the door. “Having to fill that knowledge gap takes a lot of time, money and effort. Companies that retain their talent do much better, from a financial and success perspective, than those that don’t.”

In the case of Imperial Tobacco, the past two years have shown that employee wellness isn’t one size fits all. “People should be empowered to choose . . . what they learn and contribute,” says Charet.

As the company invests in employees, they see learning and development as part of the business strategy. “We want employees to know it’s OK to learn and it’s even expected that they’ll invest in themselves.”

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.