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Towards total productivity: Reimagining benefits for small business

October 5, 2020

(Blue Planet Studio/Adobe Stock)

As the world adjusts to a “new normal” ushered in by the current COVID-19 pandemic, small and medium-sized employers will need to become more nimble — especially when it comes to employee benefits.

While the effects of the global pandemic have been largely disastrous, positives can also be found, according to Frank Tangredi, regional vice-president of business development, group benefits with Sun Life in Montreal.

“COVID’s got a lot of drawbacks in the very sad situation it’s created in the world. It is a health crisis,” he said. “But there (are) some opportunities.”

“Having a good benefits plan and a good program being able to support employees in small business will help us drive the economy and drive small business forward.”


A focus on digital, customizable tools and leveraging available and affordable solutions will assist small employers in keeping their business running at maximum capacity, said Tangredi.

“Employers need to have attractive plans to really attract and retain good talent, but it doesn’t have to be that full cafeteria-style flexible plan.”

Navigating the pandemic

On Sept. 14, Talent Canada hosted an exclusive roundtable in partnership with Sun Life Financial on reimagining benefits for small businesses.

The critical issue facing organizations today is the COVID-19 pandemic, said Tangredi.

“Everyone’s been impacted by COVID-19 and it’s really created unprecedented socio-economic and health challenges for both employers — business owners — and their employees,” he said. “We’re living through very challenging times.”

The large-scale lockdown has workers facing unique situations, such as caring for a loved one while simultaneously juggling work responsibilities, said Tangredi.

Small business owners have been largely focused on keeping their doors open, but also responding to employee challenges, he said, noting that throughout the pandemic, Sun Life worked to provide “just-in-time support” for plan sponsors and clients.

This included financial relief in terms of flexible premium payment options, as well as premium credits for employee benefits that may have been unusable due to the pandemic, said Tangredi. “It was really important to adapt very quickly.”

Insurance companies largely responded well to the pandemic, according to Patrick Desormeau, president and CEO of Nexim Canada, an insurance solution provider in Laval, Que.

“We were all in the same situation, where we didn’t know what the future held,” he said, noting some businesses decided to suspend benefits periodically. “It was changing every week, every two weeks.”

Many issues were not covered in client contracts, said Desormeau. “We had to go outside the box and think about how we could answer their needs.”

The support from benefits providers was invaluable in the early days of the pandemic, said Dominika Urbanowski, executive administrator or Exro Technologies, a Vancouver-based tech company dedicated to creating intelligent energy management systems.

“We were able to provide our employees with at least some answers, and let them know that they would have coverage.”

Assisting recruitment, retention

It’s important to realize that benefits have become a tool in both recruitment and retention for Canadian workplaces, said Tangredi.

“It’s particularly important for the small business side,” he said, noting a recent Sun Life survey of 591 employers showed 53 per cent use benefits to attract and retain their workforce.

“What we’re seeing in the marketplace is employers and employees are looking for a little bit more flexibility.”

Health-care spending accounts and personal spending accounts are part of that solution, said Tangredi, noting these allow workers to spend benefit dollars on items they find most attractive.

“It absolutely makes a difference,” said Urbanowski. “Being able to provide benefits — even though we may not be as flexible as some of the larger corporations — it really plays into a decision about employment.”

Ensuring value for cost

With budgets tightening and time of essence, education can assist small business owners in making decisions about benefits plans, said Desormeau.

“We always tell the employer, ‘Start slow. It’s always easier to add next year, or in two years, than to take away.’ Taking away stuff from the employees is not easy.”

Benefits handed out in the form of health-care spending accounts can be cost-effective, as it is tax free — as opposed to a bump in salary, he said.

Digital opportunities can help reduce cost and increase flexibility for employees, said Tangredi.

“I’ll call it the ‘Amazon shopping experience’ where they can look through digital benefit providers and be able to spend their dollars there,” he said.

Analyzing administrative time spent on benefits is also helpful in terms of “indirect” savings, said Tangredi.

“It’s really focusing more on HR digital administration tools… (and) pushing out the digital solutions to the employee’s smartphone,” he said.

“It simplifies a lot more of the administration for the plan sponsor.”

Online options and administrative supports have benefited Urbanowski’s organization.

“Cost is obviously the biggest thing,” she said, noting a “pick-and-choose” benefits model helps, as it allows organizations to support employees, as well as the bottom line.

Towards telemedicine

Teleheath is another opportunity to reduce costs for employers and employees, said Tangredi.

“You can drive appreciation of the plan without putting necessarily more dollars,” he said, citing Sun Life’s health-care provider tool Lumino Health as an example.

“To be able to put a whole network of providers, relevant content, discounts (in front of employees), that’s how we drive more value to the plan without necessarily adding costs.”

These services showed high relevance during COVID-19, and will have more prominence going forward, said Tangredi.

“More access to digital platforms, digital services, is where we think employers and employees are looking,” he said, noting telehealth is an automatic add to SunAdvantage plans for groups of 50 employees or less.

“The pandemic certainly has driven a lot of telemedicine.”

Telemedicine can help reduce both cost and hospital wait times for employers and employees, said Desormeau.

“I would imagine it’s going to reduce absenteeism, because employees — instead of staying home — are going to end up going to work more,” he said.

Easy-to-use functionality is spurring popularity, said Desormeau, noting the pandemic is pushing digital health forward at a rapid pace.

“We’re never going to go back to the way it was,” he said. “COVID has been good in that way — it’s pushing the industry into the digital age. It’s an industry that’s not easy to move, let’s say. We’re going in the right direction.”

Proper plan utilization

In terms of proper plan usage, advisers can assist in ensuring options are communicated and fully utilized by employees, said Desormeau.

“A lot of employees don’t know how much insurance costs,” he said.

“Most employers are paying at least 50 per cent of the costs… It’s important for employers to be able to show the employees at least once a year how much they’re contributing towards these benefits.”

Life insurance and disability funding can be undervalued unless an employee is specifically in need of this coverage, said

“Often, people that aren’t that sick or aren’t taking medication feel gypped to a certain extent, because they say, ‘I’m not (using) the plan and I’m paying premiums.’”

Use of options such as telemedicine may improve satisfaction in benefits coverage, as employees may feel as if they’re using the plan more completely, he said.

Communication is critical, said Tangredi.

“A lot of employees don’t know the information or even the tools that they can access within their benefits plan,” he said, noting many paramedical providers offer online consultation, including psychologists and chiropractors.

“Education and the opportunity to really present these benefits directly to plan members… it’s really important to be able to leverage and educate plan members on this information.”

Managing mental health

In recent years, mental health coverage has come to the forefront as the stigma fades, but the COVID-19 pandemic has only elevated concerns in this area.

Comfort in accessing information on the subject is necessary and available through options such as employee assistance programs (EAPs) and online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), said Tangredi.

Often, employees are unaware of their options — even with solid resources available, he said.

“If employees don’t know that (opportunities) exist, or they don’t feel comfortable to access them, then they’re really not driving what we’re looking for. Fostering an environment is really important, and that does go through education,” said Tangredi.

“It really starts by creating great environments where they feel that they can access that.”

While employers can always improve in this area, non-employer support may be better suited in areas where privacy needs to be protected, said Urbanowski.

“I think a lot of people struggle with understanding and with trying to figure out how to approach this,” she said.

“I’m very happy that the stigma in our society around mental health is declining… This is an illness — and not something to be ashamed of. I’m very hopeful that this is something that will continue to get better, but in the meantime to have some services available to employees that they can access that doesn’t involve management.”

It’s important to note that EAP usage is entirely confidential, said Desormeau.

“The employer never gets to know who called or what they talked about,” he said. “Once the employees know that it is completely confidential… I think that’s the first step on helping the employer on absenteeism.”

COVID-19 has been a strain as many health conditions worsen with stress, said Desormeau, noting many workers have had concerns about future job prospects and benefits as a result of the pandemic.

“I’m sure it’s played a big role in the mental issues that have come during COVID,” he said. “That uncertainty, that stress — it’s not a good combination.” 

Towards Total Productivity virtual roundtable



Sun Life group benefits – working harder for small business

The pandemic has slowed or eliminated growth for businesses of all sizes. But small businesses – the engine of our economy – have been especially hard hit. From lockdown closures to supply chain disruptions to cash flow crunches, small businesses have seen it all. And we introduced many immediate measures to help.

We also introduced many permanent innovations for small businesses. These include digital solutions that reduce the burden of group benefits administration. Small business owners can now spend less time on administration and more time working on managing and growing their business.

Group benefits are very important to small businesses – and are of heightened importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Group benefits help you attract and retain talent, and they keep your workforce healthy and productive. In addition, recent digital innovations and flexible options make group benefits work even harder for you and your employees. It’s these innovations that have made us the group benefits leader in serving small businesses in Canada.

Easy digital plan administration

Administration – including group benefits administration – is one of the challenges facing many small businesses. But there are solutions.

The Sun Life + Rise solution is a simple online tool that lets small businesses and their employees manage Sun Life group benefits. And it’s scalable. As small businesses’ needs grow, they can expand the system to include payroll and HR administration. This allows the single entry of information across all platforms. With any benefit change or update, the system automatically adjusts premiums and deductions and syncs information with HR and payroll.

The tool can be securely accessed and provides:

  • Simplified online enrolment. Employees can enrol from any mobile device, laptop or desktop.
  • A consistent employee experience. Employees have instant, single sign-on access to mysunlife.ca. Everything is at their fingertips – plan booklets, drug and travel cards, claims management and more.
  • Automated premium management. The system manages premium calculations and collects premiums directly from payroll. The system handles the remittance of all payments to Sun Life.

The employee experience is also technology-based – with information and transactions all carried out through our secure website or mobile app.

Another solution, the my Sun Life mobile app is the highest rated in our industry – rated 4 out of 5 stars. Employees can submit claims, check their health coverage, and find a new local health-care provider. They can also look up drug information. This easy access to information, tools and claims submissions reduces a business’ administration burden even further.

Virtual health care

Virtual health care has been front and centre during the pandemic. But its impact is long lasting. Across all provinces, virtual care has become an essential element of health care.

Lumino Health Virtual Care gives employees access to qualified health-care professionals when they need them. They can reach them through the Lumino app, or online through a computer, and they can do it at home, at work, or anywhere else in Canada.

When they request a visit, they’re triaged through an artificial intelligence-based system. The system then places the employee into a video chat with a nurse, nurse practitioner or doctor.

Virtual health professionals can resolve about 70 per cent of primary care cases. They can diagnose any condition that doesn’t require a physical exam – and write a prescription if needed. They can also book specialist appointments – including those for mental health treatments – and schedule standard follow-up visits.

Employee choice: Flexible spending accounts

A great way of using benefits to attract employees is to add flexibility to your plan. Features like Health Spending Accounts (HSAs) let employees use benefit dollars for health products and services that they want and need. This includes treatments like therapeutic massage, physiotherapy and chiropractor care. Personal Spending Accounts (PSAs) are similar but let employers choose what expenses are eligible for the employee to claim.

Whether an HSA or a PSA, it’s all about choice. Employees can direct their benefit dollars in a way that provides the greatest benefit to them and their family. At the same time, they can still take advantage of other important insurance coverage in case they become disabled or seriously ill.

You wear many hats while managing your business. We can help you win the competitive battle for recruiting high-performing talent while keeping your employees healthy, happy and engaged.

Learn more

To find out more about how Sun Life solutions can help your small business, visit www.risepeople.com/benefitsmadeeasy.

Group Benefits are provided by Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, a member of the Sun Life group of companies.


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