In response to the coronavirus pandemic, more than half of Canadian employers (53 per cent) are enhancing their well-being programs, while 27 per cent are planning to make changes to improve health benefits, according to a new survey by Willis Towers Watson.

The survey, which polled nearly 150 Canadian employers with more than 800,000 employees, also found only four per cent of survey respondents said they’ve reduced or are planning to reduce health-care benefits during this time.

“Despite the significant challenges facing employers and employees this year, it is encouraging that most organizations are taking steps to either maintain or enhance their employee health and well-being programs,” said Christiane Bourassa, the organization’s Canadian innovation leader for health and benefits, in a press release. “Employers are doing what they can to support their workers and their families with a focus firmly on the future.”

Read: 75% of global workers feel employers are looking after their well-being during coronavirus

The survey also found supporting physical and emotional health is a top priority for most employers, with 57 per cent saying they believe the coronavirus will have a moderate to large negative impact on employee well-being. In particular, 45 per cent of employers said they’re offering or expanding access to virtual mental-health services, while 60 per cent said they expect mental-health services and stress management to be one of their organizations’ most important benefits priorities over the next six months.

As well, 34 per cent of respondents said they’re increasing access to telemedicine, with an additional 40 per cent planning or considering doing so. Maintaining physical health is also important, with 70 per cent of employers saying they’re offering new technology-enabled solutions, such as virtual workouts, to support employees who work from home. Another 13 per cent said they’re planning or considering these solutions. And 58 per cent of respondents said they’re promoting healthy nutrition and weight management for at-home employees, while 18 per cent said they’re planning or considering adding programs in this area.

Despite the pressure for urgent responses, more than half (57 per cent) of survey respondents said they’re using assessments to understand the well-being needs of specific cohorts of their employee population, while another 16 per cent said they’re planning or considering similar segmentation. Employers are also recognizing the importance of the manager’s role in remaining connected with employees, with 56 per cent of respondents providing manager training on engaging a remote workforce and another 27 per cent planning or considering similar action.

Read: Fluor Canada cares for employee well-being during coronavirus

Regarding the health and benefits cost implications of the pandemic, the survey results suggested a mixed picture. Most employers said they expect some level of pandemic-related increase to sick leave costs (65 per cent) and group disability costs (59 per cent). However, only 37 per cent said they expect overall health and benefits cost increases, while 31 per cent expect reduced costs due to a decline in access to health-care and dental services during the crisis.

“The cost implications of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot yet be fully measured,” said Dawn Noordam, senior director of health and benefits at Willis Towers Watson. “However, as organizations are transitioning to the next phase and with ongoing economic uncertainty, we expect that cost management will certainly be a key consideration.

“Employers will want to review specialty drug use, which typically represents a third of drug plan costs, to identify cost control strategies. Similarly, they will be well-served to also examine paramedical practitioner coverage, the second biggest health-care cost driver and one that often incurs double-digit annual increases, to ensure it aligns with the health, well-being and business objectives of our new work-from-home reality.”

Read: BMO highlights health supports for staff during coronavirus