'Wellness doesn't mean the same thing to everyone'

Head of group benefits talks about importance of communication, budgetary considerations in boosting utilization

'Wellness doesn't mean the same thing to everyone'

There’s no point buying into a top of the range benefits and wellness plan if your people don’t know how to access it – or don’t feel inclined to. Speaking to Julie Gaudry, head of group benefits at RBC Insurance, she tells HRD that one of the biggest challenge employers face when it comes to their benefits and wellness plan is a lack of awareness and low utilization.

“It’s an issue we’ve been talking about in great detail for quite some time,” she says. “Especially at HRD’s recent Wellbeing Summit. Often employers make a large selection of resources available to their people but they’re chronically neglected – so much so that if you ask the average employee what benefits they have access to, they’re often unsure.”

This in itself makes it difficult to reap the benefit of these programs. A chronic underutilization of benefits and wellness resources, whether that be through a lack of awareness or time constraints, means masses of supports are being missed out on. Which can be worrisome when you consider the ongoing mental health crisis permeating through Canadian organizations. 

“Another issue can be the misalignment between benefits available and the culture within a company,” adds Gaudry. “Do employees feel like you, as an employer, care about them? Do your workplace policies and benefits reflect that? Employees will naturally be more open to accessing mental health support if your culture is congruent with those values, and by extension what it feels like to work in that environment.”

And the data’s there to back it up. Research from CloudMD found that only 37% of employees are utilizing their mental health benefits – despite the ongoing prevalence of anxiety, depression and burnout. The answer, as provided in the data, seems to be communication – something Gaudry agrees with.

“We encourage our clients to first take inventory of what they have available today and ensure that they're actively communicating that to their employee population,” she tells HRD. “Whether that's in person, an email, online, through an intranet, a team meeting or leader-led communication – just ensure you’re communicating it and frequently.”

Following that, Gaudry puts emphasis on understanding budgetary constraints – looking at where you can invest and how much you have to work with.

“Look at getting the biggest bang for your buck,” says Gaudry. “That begins with assessing the budget strategically, understanding the types of coverage being offered and pinpointing what your employees really want and need. From there, if there is opportunity for additional investment, we encourage employers to work with their advisor to see where they should place that investment.”

The overarching need for flexibility and personalization can’t be understated here. Employee expectations around benefits have evolved –a “one-size-fits-all” strategy is often insufficient, with employees expecting the ability to choose their coverage and have a variety of support available based on their evolving needs. Wellness, as Gaudry tells HRD, doesn’t look the same to everyone – health risks and wellness goals will vary from person to person and can change over time.

“It's important for employers to embed some element of choice into their programs so employees can personalize their own experience,” she says. “If the programs available are meaningful to them as an individual, this will in turn drive utilization.”

But what types of wellness will be important to employees in 2023? We’ve seen the rise and fall of benefits trends in the past. Just 10 years ago the main benefit concerns revolved around retirement funds and job security – now employees crave remote working, ESG support and mental wellbeing initiatives. For Gaudry, she predicts that mental health will continue to dominate benefits strategy for the foreseeable future.

“Poor mental health has been one of the biggest drivers of employee absences and disability,” she says. “And it's only moved even more to the forefront given the level of disruption and stress we’ve all experienced over the last couple of years. At RBC Insurance, we’ll continue to bring a wide variety of solutions to our clients – helping them support their people’s mental wellbeing while providing flexibility in how they access that support.”

The challenges faced over the pandemic are impacting HR leaders as well, increasing demands on already overburdened practitioners. As such self-care in leadership is essential, if you want to thrive in 2023 personally, and especially if you want to demonstrate the positive impact of using the benefits and wellness support available.

“Not only is self-care important to an individual’s wellbeing, it’s also an important indicator of culture,” says Gaudry. “Employees want to believe that their company prioritizes self-care – and if they’re seeing their leader ‘walk the talk’ then they’ll know it’s a reality and not just empty words.”

For Gaudry, that self-care manifests in a pair of running shoes. 

“All I need is some decent attire for the weather that day and I’m off,” she says. “Running works for me personally, as I can do it anywhere, any time. I don't work well with a set class schedule that I need to get to – I like the flexibility of fitting in a run when my schedule allows.  Ideally for me, I like to run first thing in the morning, but sometimes I’ll break up my day with a run to clear my head. 

“With just my running shoes, my exercise routine can go with me wherever I am - at home, or travelling, or off work on vacation. It won’t be running for everyone –  do what works for you as an individual.  And for HR  leaders, it’s about helping people find what works for them, and helping them make that activity a priority.”

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