Stress is a necessary and important part of life, but prolonged periods of high stress levels can lead to distress—a risk factor for all forms of psychological and physical illnesses, including anxiety, depression and chronic diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
While all Canadians live in a culture of chronic stress, this can affect some more than others. According to Sun Life Financial’s 2012 Canadian Health Index Report, while 72% of respondents report experiencing excessive or uncomfortable levels of stress, it is the youngest age groups that are hardest hit: 18- to 24-year-olds (90%) and 25- to 34-year-olds (80%). (This compares to just 57% of Canadians ages 55 to 64.)
Work plays a huge role in the high stress levels among these younger age groups. But as these employees move into the workforce to replace retiring baby boomers, employers can actually do something to help them minimize the stressors. Sun Life’s 2012 Canadian Health Index Report indicates that 80% of Canadians believe employers should help their employees manage stress and promote psychological well-being.
One organization that recently moved to address gen Y’s concerns is Shaw Communications Inc. Its workforce has almost doubled since 2008, growing to 14,500 employees from 9,000. The company has an average employee age of 36, and 52% of employees belong to gen Y.
“Our internal focus groups and surveys confirmed that all our employees, and in particular gen Y, were looking for more flexibility and lifestyle choices from our benefits plan,” says Laurie Maye, director of HR shared services with Shaw.
While there may be challenges to overcome in introducing such a radically different benefits plan, the results can be quite positive for employers and employees alike.
Gen Y’s needs
The catch in helping generation Y employees tackle their stress issues is that their benefits plan needs are unlike any other generation in the workforce. Sun Life’s qualitative research on generational differences in benefits plan preferences revealed several unique needs for this group and identified three key areas in which generation Y would like to see change from a plan design perspective—needs that most traditional benefits plans don’t meet––and areas that Shaw focused on.
More flexibility and control
Generation Y employees expect benefits solutions that reflect their diversity and acknowledge their individualism; they are frustrated by traditional plans. Flexible benefits plans are a valuable tool to help employers meet this need, especially when paired with add-on solutions such as healthcare spending accounts (HCSAs) and personal spending/wellness accounts for even greater flexibility.
Shaw’s new flexible benefits plan—called Shaw CHOICES—enables employees to make separate decisions on their level of coverage for drugs, vision, paramedical services, basic dental and major dental/orthodontic coverage. They can even choose which dependents should be covered under the plan, including separate elections for both health and dental benefits.
And Shaw employees can channel unused credits toward a number of wellness options: an HCSA, a wellness account (for items as diverse as house cleaning or even veterinarian bills), a group RRSP, vacation time or critical illness and life insurance premiums.
More wellness, health and lifestyle benefits options
Gen Y aspires to live a healthy, active lifestyle. Research from the Sun Life Canadian Health Index Report shows that 71% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 76% of 25- to 34-year-olds strongly agree that they do everything to maximize their health. From a benefits plan perspective, this translates into a strong desire for wellness-related options such as subsidized gym memberships, work-site fitness facilities, healthy food programs and reimbursement toward the cost of education or self-development courses.
Shaw conducted focus groups and surveys, asking its employees what they did and didn’t value and what they felt was missing from the benefits program. Almost all the participants expressed the desire for more plan choice, and the majority felt that there should be greater emphasis on fitness, nutrition and overall well-being—key factors to help combat stress.
Greater convenience, clear communication
Gen Ys want to be able to process health claims easily and at their convenience. They are enthusiastic about mobile and online applications versus paper forms and documents via snail mail. They also want clear and simple communications about their claims and benefits options.
Shaw wanted to educate its employees on the true value of their benefits and help them understand their role in ensuring the plan’s sustainability. The company partnered with its benefits consultant to create a website that educated employees on the merits of the new plan over the eight weeks leading up to enrollment. Shaw invited employees to participate in open forums on its internal blog and in two-hour in-person information sessions. It also offered an online information session
for those employees who couldn’t attend in person.
“Our employees are of a generation that is looking for technological solutions for day-to-day administration. Paper claims and complex language are cumbersome and outdated,” says Maye. “We ensured all of our communications were in clear, simple language—with a huge focus on electronic mediums to deliver information.”
Thinking traditionally about group benefits can lead plan sponsors to bypass the needs of an entire generation—particularly one that’s poised to dominate the workplace in just a few short years. Employers with traditional benefits offerings will see the gap between money spent and value delivered grow unless they rethink the design and delivery of the plan. They will have a healthier, more productive workforce and be better positioned as an organization to harness generation Y’s great potential.
“We now have a plan that provides us with exceptional cost management capabilities and presents employees with comprehensive benefits that they value far more than our previous one-size-fits-all strategy,” says Maye. “CHOICES has been a huge hit for us because our employees now have a benefits plan that suits their individual needs.”
Stuart Monteith is senior vice-president, group benefits, with Sun Life Financial Canada. firstname.lastname@example.org