As employers begin rebuilding the workplace once the coronavirus pandemic recedes, their group benefits plan will be their best tool — and ally — to help employees regain their health and wellness footing, said Jennifer Katzsch, regional vice-president of Western Canada at Desjardins Insurance during Benefits Canada‘s 2021 Benefits & Pension Summit.

As with past crises, she noted, the full extent of the pandemic will be revealed as employers sift through the rubble left in its wake. “During the 2008 crisis, employees continued to work, but once the situation began to improve, we saw that it had an impact — much like a marathon runner, who can hold on for 42 kilometres but collapses just after the finish line. After the year that we’ve been through, your employees may feel like this marathon runner — proud to have held on but completely exhausted. And they just may need some help to get up and get going again.”

Read: 2021 BPS coverage: New disruptors awaiting employers in the post-pandemic workplace

Studies by Desjardins have found physical, financial and mental health are all related, said Katzsch, and when something goes wrong for employees in one of these areas, it can affect all three. As the work environment changes, it will affect employees’ well-being, so in order to ensure a sustainable recovery that benefits everyone, it will be important for employers to be there for employees and monitor how they’re doing, she said.

Also speaking during the session, Lancelot Lambert, director of business development and group insurance at Desjardins, said the pandemic had a paradoxical effect on productivity. Referring to a 2020 study by Mercer, he noted most U.S. employers reported flat or higher productivity levels last year, thanks to working from home. Indeed, the study showed eight out of 10 employers found the shift to remote working a success. But Lambert also pointed out it wasn’t such a rosy picture for employees, as they’ve been working harder than before — longer days, blurred boundaries between work and personal life and fewer vacation days.

Read: Canadian employees taking less time off amid pandemic uncertainty: report

Data by Humi showed Canadian employees took 25 per cent fewer vacation days in 2020 than in the previous year. This decreased time off is accompanied by a rise in the risk of employee burnout, he added, noting women and young people have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, mainly because they make up the bulk of employees in sectors that suffered during the crisis. However, he said women were also more likely than men to be the main caregiver in the home, which exacerbated the pandemic’s strain on their work-life balance with the shift to remote working and led to many leaving their jobs.

To implement targeted retention and acquisition programs, employers can conduct a departmental analysis of age and gender distribution to compare turnover and resignation rates before and after the pandemic, said Lambert. They should also track their employees’ satisfaction index through annual surveys or feedback groups, he added, and consider updating their benefits to suit their post-pandemic workforce and new reality.

Read: 24% of Canadians considering job or career change due to pandemic: survey

As employees continue working from home and gyms and fitness studios remain closed amid social restrictions and lockdowns imposed by provincial and local governments, physical health has also been negatively affected, he said. A July 2020 poll by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found 25 per cent of Canadians aged 35 to 54 and 21 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 had increased their alcohol consumption as a result of social distancing and self-isolation. Psychological distress is one of the biggest side-effects of the pandemic, said Lambert, noting it’s critical employers discern how much employees’ mental health has been affected.

Usage data from employers’ wellness platforms can provide a snapshot of the resources employees are consulting the most, he added. Employers can also source information from their employee health risk assessment tool, which most benefits plans provide, he said, noting it gives employers an up-to-date picture of the risk factors affecting their business, while showing employees that their health is a priority.

Read: 2021 BPS coverage: Pandemic presents opportunity to address substance use with employees

Employers can also review year-over-year changes to drug usage data specific to anti-depressant use, noted Lambert, and take a deep dive into their disability data for case breakdown by cost and explore how much employees are using the employee assistance program. “This is key because 60 per cent of employees don’t use these resources, either because they don’t know they exist or because they’re reluctant to use them. If an employee is nervous about calling the EAP, refer them to resources that use chatbots, which are great for establishing anonymous first contact.”

But it’s also important to integrate financial well-being into the equation and a company’s retirement savings plan is the best source of information, said Katzsch. Employers can look at changes in levels of contributions and watch for withdrawals, she noted, adding plan members who’ve been struggling may have been forced to dip into their retirement funds to pay their bills. People who are financially stressed may look for more information and advice through the online tools available to them under their plans, which is something employers can track, she said.

Read: 2020 CAP Suppliers Report: Stretching into the financial wellness space

Katzsch suggested employers provide access to information in different ways, whether through their computers or mobile devices, in the form of a short article or personalized video or through a tool or a webinar. “Leverage every support measure to help employees adopt healthy financial habits and feel less stressed about money.”

And Lambert advised employers to promote all the services available in their group plan and remove barriers, such as cost, to their use. “In this battle for a return to a healthy lifestyle, [an employer’s] group plan is a good ally — they just need to look to it for help.”