By Andrea Hansen
Crisis isn’t something anyone wants to invite into their lives. Covid-19 has no doubt caused many challenges, but the experience of this crisis has created unexpected opportunities. Not only are we learning to do business and access services differently, we are connecting in new ways. The relationship between employers and employees has developed new significance.
Never before has strong leadership been so important. Business owners have been under extreme stress, as have the employees who relied on that leadership. It has been said that a person’s true character is often revealed in a time of crisis, and those employers that remained strong were able to show compassion for their employees amid some very difficult business decisions. We observed that leaders with an abundance mindset who practised good self-care were able to adapt quicker, lead more effectively, and thrive through this crisis. Those who surged ahead recognized that the mental health impact could last longer than the risk of the global pandemic and that this crisis doesn’t have a finish line. Leaders needed to stay level-headed, build connections, and communicate authentically to help employees bring their best to work despite the uncertain circumstances.
Put on your oxygen mask before assisting others.
A shift in perspective
Before covid-19 emerged, the most common response from employers as to why they invested in benefits was to attract and retain employees. This pandemic has shifted employer perspective in that there is now a deeper understanding and appreciation of why benefits matter and how the plans support the health and wellbeing of employees. Benefits plans are not just tools to hire and keep employees. They are not just safety nets. Benefits plans play an important role in keeping employees healthy, safe, and productive.
Employers recognize the financial stress, anxiety, and fatigue that has posed risk to employees’ physical and mental wellbeing and they saw how critical the availability of services and support was to help employees. Committed employers took a proactive approach and enhanced communication and support to care for employees’ physical and mental health.
Amid this pandemic, insurance carriers responded with unprecedented initiatives, like providing premium relief for insured health and dental plans and allowing claims for virtual care for many services, such as physiotherapy, naturopathy, and speech therapy. Employers welcomed the financial relief and the recognition that access to health and dental services was limited. But almost simultaneously, accessing health services through virtual appointments became more convenient. Removing this barrier to accessing care will have long-term benefits in optimizing employees’ health and wellbeing.
Being forced to embrace technology will have many positive side effects in terms of changing consumer behaviour. For example, few employees used to take advantage of online pharmacy providers to have prescription drugs shipped to their homes. Now it doesn’t seem like such a nuisance to set up an online account. Not only will employees benefit from the convenience and therefore likely improved prescription compliance, but both the company and the employees will experience cost savings from robotic dispensing technology. Employees will still have confidential consultations with pharmacists, but now it will be virtual.
We had clients, such as Prairie Machine, a global leader serving the industrial and mining industries, that used the premium relief to implement new benefits, such as an employee family assistance program (EFAP). For Prairie Machine, one month of 50% dental premium relief covered the cost of an EFAP for a year for their 170 employees and dependents. Employers that weren’t experiencing decision fatigue and financial distress made smart and timely choices to leverage those savings to provide additional support for their teams.
Another client, McKercher LLP, which is a Saskatchewan based law firm with offices in both Saskatoon and Regina implemented telemedicine just before the lock-down in Saskatchewan. They experienced high engagement in this new benefit. The utilization reporting from the telemedicine provider, EQ Care, highlighted that within three months over 60% of the 160 employees had set up their patient accounts and over 20% had had consultations with nurses or doctors. The intrinsic value of providing employees with peace of mind and access to immediate virtual care from doctors far outweighed the investment per employee, which was less than the cost of a couple of lattes a month.
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After these new experiences, employers may be more willing to consider investing in personalized services, such as pharmacogenetics, the study of how we respond to a medication based on our genes. Employers have the option to provide financial support for employees to undergo DNA analysis that will predict how they will respond to most prescribed drugs. Employers may not know that 70% of people don’t get relief from the first depression or anxiety medication they try, and 60% of people try three drugs before finding the right one.1 Half the time, the lack of response is due to a mismatch between genetics and the medication.
Employees are also interested in pharmacogenetics. According the 2020 Sanofi Canada healthcare survey, “76% of plan members would consent to pharmacogenetic testing.”2 Employers that want to contain health and disability costs and improve employees’ experience might be more comfortable now investing in personalized medicine.
Who you are as a leader becomes very evident during a crisis. Your true mission and values are reflected in the decisions you make, especially when decisions need to be made fast with limited information.
Crisis doesn’t create character; it reveals it.
As we navigate this new normal, we are finding the opportunities that have come from this crisis, such as the convenience and access technology provides for better health. But a deeper connection and appreciation between employers and employees has also emerged. There is better awareness of the need to provide mental health support.
The majority of employers did not cut employee benefits, choosing instead to continue coverage during temporary layoffs. Continuing benefits was aligned with company values; employers wanted to take care of their people. Employees are feeling a deeper gratitude for their employment and benefits and increased dedication to the business. There was a real “we are in this together” mindset, and that is a good opportunity for any business.
1 US National Institute of Mental Health. “Questions and answers about the NIMH Sequenced Treatment Alternatives to Relieve Depression (STAR*D) Study — all medication levels.” US Department of Health and Human Services, Nov. 2006. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/funding/clinical-research/practical/stard/allmedicationlevels.shtml.
2 Sanofi-Aventis Canada. The Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey 2020. Contex Group, Apr. 2020. https://www.sanofi.ca/-/media/Project/One-Sanofi-Web/Websites/North-America/Sanofi-CA/Home/en/Products-and-Resources/sanofi-canada-health-survey/sanofi-canada-healthcare-survey-2020-EN.pdf?la=en&hash=F1C763AA6B2F32C0BF2E623851FD05FD.
3 Paula Allen. The Mental Health Impact of covid-19. Morneau Shepell, Apr. 2020.
First published in the September 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.