Editorial: Looking back — and ahead — in an unprecedented year

As we approach the end of a truly challenging year with more uncertainty on the horizon for 2021, people all over the globe are adjusting to the new realities of their personal and professional lives.

No one is unaffected. In a broad sense, the world of employment is now divided between people working at home and those working on the frontlines. And despite more than nine months of practice, company leaders continue to struggle with managing and supporting both categories of employees.

Read: How can employers support staff with children during pandemic schooling?

The issues are numerous and constantly evolving. For one, both groups are likely feeling the impact of the childcare roller coaster, with daycare centres and schools intermittently closed across many cities throughout 2020. And in the wake of September’s return to school — online for many children — working parents are juggling the dual responsibilities of keeping on top of their day-to-day tasks and caring for children who are still at home, not to mention elderly relatives who have moved in to be closer during this difficult time.

In this month’s Employer Strategy, Accenture shares the details of its enhanced backup childcare program, which was introduced to support its working parent population during the pandemic. The crisis-care reimbursement program, initially introduced in the spring, provides all employees with $100 a day toward the cost of care for up to 30 days. And it was extended in the fall so employees could reset the clock and take another 30 days.

“When the pandemic hit, our working parents found themselves homeschooling their kids while juggling the demands of remote work,” Susan Goodyer, the organization’s human resources director in Canada, told Benefits Canada. “With the added concerns about physical and financial health, Accenture realized we needed to do more.”

Read: The benefits of backup

Indeed, while the program is mainly targeted at taking care of one particular problem — juggling work and carer responsibilities — that challenge has a significant knock-on effect, with Goodyer noting the aim was also to ease employees’ overall stress and support their mental well-being.

It all goes hand in hand. For working parents who are financially affected by the pandemic, a benefit like the crisis-care reimbursement program is immeasurable; in addition to the cost savings it facilitates, the benefit carries with it a significant amount of reassurance that one major responsibility is partially taken care of by the employer.

But of course, stress — and financial stress, in particular — isn’t only affecting working parents. Across countries and industries, employees have been laid off permanently or furloughed during the past year, raising questions about how they’ll pay their bills, rent or simply afford groceries — not to mention putting away savings for their retirement years.

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

Financial well-being is certainly not a new topic for plan sponsors and members. But the pandemic has thrust it into the spotlight. This month’s Cover Story, accompanying the 2020 CAP Suppliers Report, looks at this growing focus. Increasingly, employers are offering virtual credit counselling and debt management workshops to employees, alongside their traditional financial education sessions.

And many employers are ensuring financial well-being is emphasized right alongside physical and mental health. In the Cover Story, Kraft Heinz Canada showcases its focus on all three pillars, sharing financial information with employees as well as benefits like its employee assistance program, childcare resources and flexible time-off policies.

I think we can all agree it’s been a year like no other. I’ve been lucky to keep my job during these tumultuous times, pay my bills and mortgage without any issues and save a portion of my paycheque into a retirement savings plan. I also haven’t had to juggle work and kids — though this is my last editorial before maternity leave, so I’m sure that particular challenge is just around the corner. I guess I’ll have to see what the world of work looks like when I return to it next year.

Read: Half of employers plan to continue flexible working policies post-pandemic: survey

Despite the uncertainty ahead, I can take some comfort in the upcoming predictability of the newborn months. And looking back at what we’ve accomplished in 2020, I’m very proud of all the content Benefits Canada’s editorial team has written up to keep the industry in the loop.

But now I’m ready to sign off for a few months, trading in my editor’s pen for sleep deprivation and dirty diapers. Wishing you all the best as we close off this unprecedented year and hoping for a less dramatic 2021.

Jennifer Paterson is the editor (on leave) of Benefits Canada.