One size no longer fits all and employees are demanding benefits that cater to their unique needs. Twenty years ago most organizations provided traditional benefits programs. Aside from the ability to purchase some optional life and accidental death and dismemberment insurance, these programs provided virtually no choice for employees to tailor their coverage needs.

Fast forward to 2014, where our Benefits + Pension Survey of mostly Alberta-based organizations, finds 63% of respondents indicating their benefits program includes elements of flexibility beyond a few optional benefits. Eighteen percent of survey respondents provide a full flexible benefits program, where employees are able to choose health and dental coverage levels, which was up from 15% last year. However, the most common means of offering employees choice and flexibility is by simply adding a healthcare spending account (HCSA) to a traditional program, as indicated by 45% of survey respondents.

Technology has played a major role in the feasibility of offering flexibility to employees. Twenty years ago, many plan sponsors still used paper flex enrollment forms and manually keyed employee choices into information systems, which left plenty of room for human error.

Today’s web-based enrollment tools allow employees to easily model the cost impact of different choices before making their final selections, and dramatically reduces enrollment mistakes. Benefits technology will only improve in the future and help reduce barriers for employers wanting to increase flexibility for their employees.

While there are size limitations for smaller organizations to offer a full flex program, due to administrative complexity, cost and anti-selection guidelines, an HCSA is an ideal way for any size organization to add flexibility to their benefits program. Common plan member complaints about their benefits program include: not enough dental and paramedical coverage, and no vision coverage.

An HCSA can help fix all of these program shortcomings at once, as employees can use this account to help fund the extra coverage they need the most. And unlike improving coverage levels, which are exposed to double-digit trend and inflationary pressures, HCSA costs are typically flat annual dollar amounts, which do not increase annually with inflation.

Alberta employers have also embraced flexible programs that help promote more work/life balance. Many employees routinely spend an hour or more commuting daily, bookending 10+ hour workdays that often don’t end when they leave the office. Smartphones keep many of us tethered to the office and our work creeps into our evenings, weekends, vacations and holidays. For many employees, balancing work and life is challenging to say the least. Fortunately, many Alberta plan sponsors have recognized that all work and no play doesn’t just make Jack a dull boy, it could result in burnout, disability, increased health risk, etc.

Therefore, we were pleased to see that 60% of survey respondents provide employees with flex days in addition to vacation and holidays, which increased from 50% in 2013. Of the survey respondents who offer their employees flex days, 50% provide more than five days annually.

The survey results also indicate that Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer isn’t the only CEO that apparently doesn’t want their employees working from home. Only 21% of this year’s survey respondents indicated offering telecommuting as a work/life balance option, which decreased from 32% in 2013.

While only 24% of survey respondents are planning to make changes to their benefits in the next 12 months, 70% of those projecting changes are planning enhancements versus just 15% who are planning program reductions. Increasing flexibility is the primary goal for 53% of organizations indicating a change, which is up from 40% in 2013. More than a quarter (28%) of respondents plan to add flexibility by implementing an HCSA, also up from 20% last year.

With Alberta’s low unemployment rate, if employees aren’t getting the benefits and flexibility they expect, they will often express their dissatisfaction by walking across the street to another employer can give them what they want.

Kenneth MacDonald is a senior consultant with Morneau Shepell in Calgary. These are the views of the author and not necessarily those of Benefits Canada.
Copyright © 2021 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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