Three years ago, Imax Corp. created a $500 annual wellness spending account for its Canadian employees to spend on anything related to health and fitness.
Employees can spend their allowance on things such as gym and sports membership fees; fitness classes and personal training sessions; smoking cessation; weight management; stress management and nutrition counselling programs; and fitness equipment such as yoga mats, skates or bicycles.
“We wanted to support the health and wellness of employees but we didn’t want to tell them how to specifically do it,” says Carrie Lindzon-Jacobs, executive vice-president of human resources at Imax. “So we gave them an amount of money every year that was actually going to make a difference.”
Since the account’s launch, employees have used the fund in a variety of ways. Lindzon-Jacobs says employees have started a Weight Watchers group, joined a marathon as a team and used the wellness account to make headway in the Global Corporate Challenge, a program that motivates workers to make healthy changes.
Imax sponsors the challenge by paying the entrance fees of employees who want to participate, according to Lindzon-Jacobs. “Employees are using their wellness allowance to get running shoes, spin bikes or swimming lessons to find ways to get their steps in as part of the [corporate challenge].”
While the wellness spending account at Imax is fairly new, large companies have been providing such allowances for years, according to Art Babcock, senior vice-president at Aon Hewitt. However, Babcock says these types of spending accounts will likely remain a benefit afforded only by large companies that have the resources to administer them.
Among the benefits of a wellness spending account is the fact that it can address the diverse needs of employees across different generations, says Lindzon-Jacobs.
“Instead of choosing what the personal health or fitness goals might be for each individual, we recognize it may be different for each person.”
At the same time, providing financial support helps remove a major obstacle people face in their pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, says Linda Lewis-Daly, a workplace wellness program consultant at GoodLife Fitness.
“If you provide access to those tools or services that will encourage healthy lifestyle choices, then I think the employer is going to win in terms of employee loyalty and productivity,” says Lewis-Daly.
“Preventing disease is less costly than an employee that goes off on disability because of an illness or an increased drug cost to manage illness,” she adds.
“So the money spent up front in prevention can provide the [return on investment] that employers would be looking for.”
Many employers are willing to spend money for that return. According to the 2016 Sanofi Canada health-care survey, 66 per cent of plan sponsors have increased their benefits spend over the past three years, while 43 per cent would be more willing to invest in programs and services that could help prevent future claims.
The response from employees at Imax has been positive, says Lindzon-Jacobs. “We got e-mails, phone calls and thank-you cards. They think it’s a very unique benefit, a draw to Imax, and it furthers the relationship we have with our employees because they feel we care about them.”
And while Imax isn’t looking for a specific measure of success, the company reviews claims to look for trends in regards to what employees are spending their money on. According to Lindzon-Jacobs, employee engagement improved in the latest survey, largely as a result of the wellness account.
In addition, more people are taking advantage of the account as each year passes. In the first year, 50 per cent of employees used the account, a number that reached 70 per cent by the third year, according to Lindzon-Jacobs.
“We’re expecting 80 per cent this year,” she says.
Jann Lee is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.
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