Employees have multi-dimensional lives, with responsibilities outside the workplace that affect how they perform within it. This is why companies that are consistently recognized as family-friendly are maximizing their workers’ potential by helping take care of their families through benefits and wellness programs.

Samuel, Son & Co., a family owned and operated metal and distribution manufacturing company with an 80 per cent male workforce, carefully considers how everything its employees do inside its industrial premises affects their lives outside of work.

Family permeates every conversation around workplace safety and health care, says Scott Busch, the company’s vice-president of total rewards. It’s not just about the employee, the workplace and their safety, he adds, it’s about the responsibility workers owe to their loved ones to be safe and well at work.

Read: Samuel, Son & Co. rides benefits communication harmony to award win

The company also carefully considers its primary employee persona (males in their mid-40s) to determine which benefits will most affect their families. “For example, at a time when most employers are cutting back on dental benefits, we introduced childhood orthodontics,” says Busch. “It was a big win.”

Also, when Samuel, Son & Co. planned communications for its new benefits plan, it carefully analyzed its employee population as well as its covered population. Given the demographics of the workforce, the company considered that its employees’ partners or spouses were typically taking care of the family’s needs, says Busch. “Most of our employees are secondary consumers of health care.”

The communications effort focused on getting the message out of the office and directly to the partner or spouse. A package was mailed to employees’ homes and they were encouraged to discuss the new benefits plan with their families. “We purposely designed the program to be read, questioned and enrolled in by family members other than the employee,” says Busch. “We also put our benefits structure on a publicly accessible website rather than an internal portal so spouses could easily access it.”

Read: How to communicate health benefits to a diverse workforce

Samuel, Son & Co.’s benefits advisory committee was also carefully set up to represent people from all walks and stages of life, with different genders, ages and family structures. “They weighed in on the benefits with their diverse perspectives — big family, small family, single parent, young person, someone on the cusp of retirement, etc. — and kept us inclusive,” says Busch. “And we spent a lot of time in our plan design talking about how to impact and improve our employees’ life outside of work, not at work.”

Family-friendly workplace legislation

A bill introduced in October 2018 by the federal government would allow workers to take up to five days off each calendar year for a variety of reasons, including caring for relatives. As well, the government introduced a use-it-or-lose it EI parental sharing benefit of five weeks that will take effect this year.

While Ontario introduced a range of changes to workplace legislation, including increases to paid vacation and personal leaves, many of these were reversed or changed at the end of the year by the new Conservative government. The previous Liberal government’s OHIP+ program, introduced in January 2018 to cover all Ontarians under age 25 for the 4,400 drugs currently paid for by the province, is also being rolled back by the new government.

Changes to employment standards in Alberta included guaranteed job protection for new unpaid leaves, such as five days of personal and family responsibility leave, three days of bereavement leave and a 36-week leave for the critical illness of a child. It also extended maternity leave by one week to 16 weeks, extended parental leave from 37 weeks to 52 weeks and extended compassionate care leave from eight weeks to 27 weeks.

Quebec made significant changes to its workplace legislation, including enhanced leave entitlements and an expansion of the definition of ‘caregiver.’

British Columbia issued recommendations for amendments to its employment standards, including enacting the right to refuse overtime in circumstances where overtime would conflict with certain family commitments.

Hitting home

While many employers are including benefits coverage that’s geared to employees’ family members, it’s also important to consider offerings that help take the pressure off those with caring responsibilities.

KPMG Canada, for example, provides logistic support to a bustling working parents’ network and a special family and friends’ network, both of which enable staff to connect over common issues, concerns and stresses around their roles as parents and caregivers to family members or friends with special needs. Employees also meet monthly to share stories and attend lunch and learns conducted by experts every quarter.

Read: A look at extended parental benefits one year on

In addition, employees have five personal care days to address family commitments, and they can adjust their workdays to accommodate work and family, including starting early, working longer hours and fewer days or remotely.

“The definition of wellness has changed over the years,” says Lisa Park, KPMG Canada’s director of total rewards. “We’re talking about wellness in a much more holistic way these days. Earlier, it was always focused on physical wellness. Now it encompasses physical, financial, professional, social and mental wellness — all of which include family. You can’t be well if someone in your family isn’t well, and we recognize that.”

To ensure its total rewards package is relevant to all employees, the company recently eliminated any use-it-or-lose-it, ad hoc programs that didn’t have universal appeal. Instead, the money is consolidated into a wellness pool, which is a flat amount plus a percentage of employee’s individual salary.

They can use the money to purchase benefits, such as health, dental or drugs, and/or direct it to their lifestyle spending account, health-care spending account, registered retirement savings plan or tax-free savings account. Where employees use the wellness pool for family benefits, they get extra money to assist with subsidizing the increased cost.

Read: Back to basics on health-care spending accounts

BASF Canada Inc. extends its health benefits to the surviving spouse of a deceased employee, with the family receiving the same coverage at no charge for one year. “Family, after all, is part of the complete relationship,” says Raja Ramanathan, the company’s human resources business partner. “This is one of the things we do to acknowledge that and tell the family we share in their loss.”

Manulife Financial Corp. aims to alleviate the stress for employees who are also caregivers by offering backup child and elder care when their regular care falls through. Maria Fraga, the company’s global head of benefits and wellness, says all benefits- eligible employees have access to 20 days of backup care a year for each dependant at subsidized rates. As well, childcare is offered close to work or home at $20 each day per child or $35 per family per day, while in-home child and elder care is offered at $7 an hour.

Caregiving in numbers

$5.5 billion
The estimated amount employers lose annually in productivity due to caregiving-related absenteeism.

Every year, Canada loses approximately this number of full-time employees from the workforce due to the conflicting demands of paid work and care.

The percentage of employed Canadians who are working and balancing caregiving responsibilities at the same time.

Sources: Statistics Canada; the Vanier Institute of the Family

Shaw Communications Inc. provides employees with the flexibility to change life events and tailor their benefits to suit their evolving needs throughout the year, according to Tina Gill, the organization’s director of people and culture shared services.

Read: My Take: Childcare support welcome, but what about elder care?

Staff can switch between limited and enhanced coverage to protect family members, and divert additional credits to their health-care spending or wellness accounts, RRSP or long-term disability and life insurance premiums. The company also allocates up to $2,000 to a personal wellness account, which can be used for childcare expenses and a whole host of other services.


It’s difficult to bring about change through workplace wellness programs if they don’t include employees’ family members, says Nicole Cairns, director of health and wellness and Thorpe Benefits. “For example, if an employee is trying to make some nutritional changes but the person who makes the meals around the house is not on the same page, it’s challenging to keep up.”

For its plan sponsor clients, the organization sends educational information to employees and their families. As well, family members can sign up for mailing lists and newsletters, and video recordings are made available to them after any lunch and learn session. Where plan sponsors allow it, family members are encouraged to attend live presentations and are invited to take part in any group wellness challenges available to staff.

Read: Health challenges expand one-size-fits-all approach to wellness

As recruitment and retention is becoming more competitive and challenging, the power is now in the hands of candidates rather than employers, says Richard Kercz, an organizational psychology consultant. The trouble, he adds, is that a lot of companies still haven’t taken the time to figure out who they really are, what they stand for or how they want to be perceived.

And for employers still ambivalent about their identity, there’s definitely a business benefit to adopting and projecting a family-friendly culture and brand. The reason, says Cairns, lies in the fact that the health and wellness of family members affects the employee, and they inevitably bring it to work.

“Indirectly, the well-being of the family impacts the employer as well. It’s also a goodwill thing, and in our best interest for employee retention and engagement.”

Kanupriya Vashisht is a Toronto-based freelance writer.