Financial Planning

Canadians value their health benefit plans more than cash

By Megan Harman |

The economic downturn may be prompting employers to consider cutting spending on health benefits, but a new survey reveals that such cuts could be detrimental to employee morale and productivity.

In fact, health benefits may be even more important during economic downturns since financial concerns take a toll on employee stress levels, the survey by pharmaceutical company sanofi-aventis finds.

Nearly one-third of the 2,090 health benefit plan members surveyed agreed that stress in their home or personal life made them physically ill in the past year and 38% said the same regarding workplace stress. Nearly 30% of respondents said they did not get much work done when experiencing stress.

Personal finances or meeting personal financial responsibilities was a top source of stress for 31% of respondents, and was a particularly prevalent source of stress to residents of Alberta and Ontario. Ontarians are also feeling the highest level of job insecurity, at 20% compared to a national average of 15%.

“Today’s economic climate is a great opportunity for employers to assist in mitigating stress among its employees. Given the impact of stress on productivity and health, employers need to specifically and comprehensively address this issue from all angles, including wellness programming, help with counselling, fair workloads, support and communication,” said Jacques L’Espérance, president of J. L’Espérance Actuariat Conseil Inc. and a member of the sanofi-aventis Healthcare Survey Advisory Board.

According to the survey findings, Canadians value their health benefit plans more than cash. More than half of respondents said they would choose their plan over $15,000 in cash, and 45% would choose their plan over $20,000.

Businesses should consider the extent to which employees value health benefits before scaling back to cut costs, according to Chris Bonnett, a member of the sanofi-aventis Healthcare Survey Advisory Board and president of Toronto-based healthcare consulting firm H3 Consulting.

“People are at the heart of an organization’s success - a weak economy doesn’t change this,” Bonnett said. “Even if some companies must cut staff to survive, they must also look after those who remain. Employees need peace of mind, and the survey demonstrates health benefit plan provides an important level of security.”

A key concern to health benefit plan holders is access to healthcare and treatment, including physician visits, diagnostics, medication and urgent care. More than half of respondents said they have had difficulty accessing prescription medications, including almost one-in-ten respondents who did not buy a prescribed drug because it was not covered by their health benefit plan. For families whose household incomes are below $30,000, 18% did not buy a prescribed drug because it wasn’t covered.

“Employers have an opportunity to protect their interest by helping address gaps in access to care and treatment, and supporting employees with a faster and safe return to work and productivity,” Bonnett said.

The survey also found that companies which invest in providing health and wellness programs can generate tangible returns. Employees at companies offering such programs were more satisfied in their jobs, and were more likely to say they felt an obligation to help their employer control benefit costs.