Employers tweaking health plans to appeal to millennials

TORONTO - During his three-year tenure as a financial analyst at one of Canada's biggest banks, Devon Wright never once used his company health plan.

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"There was just nothing there that was of any interest to me," says Wright, 28.

So when Wright quit his job in 2012 to launch technology company Turnstyle Solutions, he decided to create a benefits package tailored to his needs.

Turnstyle is one example of how Canadian companies are tweaking their health plans in order to appeal to a new generation of employees in the coming years. PwC predicts that millennials - who it defined as people born between 1980 and 2000 - will comprise 50 per cent of the global workforce by 2020.

In addition to the standard drug and dental benefits, Turnstyle covers naturopathic medicine, mental health counselling and provides employees with a fitness subsidy that they can spend on anything from a gym membership to yoga classes to participation in a Frisbee league.

The Toronto-based startup also offers free, healthy meals several times a week - a major perk for 23-year-old Sam Hillman.

"Some mornings we have soup, or avocados and eggs," says Hillman, an account director with the company's sales team.

"This emphasis on living a healthy lifestyle really shows the company's commitment to me as a holistic individual, and not just a Turnstyle employee."

Life insurance companies such as Sun Life Financial and Manulife Financial say a growing number of employers have been looking to implement corporate wellness programs in recent years, partly in response to the desires of millennial workers.

Wellness programs include services such as smoking cessation, on-site flu shots and biometric screening, which measures characteristics including blood pressure, body mass index and cholesterol to track employee health.

Preventative health care has become increasingly popular as employers have come to realize how it can benefit not only the individual but the company. Healthy workers are more productive, miss fewer days of work due to illness and are less likely to request costly drugs later down the road.

"We're trying to respond to what millennials are looking for, but there are also benefits to the organization for doing these things," says Joy Sloane, a partner in the Toronto health and benefits consulting practice at human resources firm Morneau Shepell.

Insurers have also started using wearable fitness trackers and incentive programs that reward customers for practising healthy behaviours, such as undergoing annual checkups or regularly hitting the gym.

Manulife, which launched an incentive program south of the border last year, announced on Tuesday it will bring it to Canada this year.

Flexible plans, such as health spending accounts, are also on the rise as employers look to recruit and retain young workers.

"The millennial generation is looking for different things than their parents had in terms of benefits plans," says Lori Casselman, assistant vice-president of integrated health solutions at Sun Life Financial.

Millennials place a much greater priority on mental health services, such as counselling and support groups, than their predecessors did, according to insurers.

"Mental health is now recognized as being one of the key factors in absenteeism and lost productivity, as well as drug claims and long-term disability," says Lisa Callaghan, assistant vice-president of products for Manulife's group benefits division.

"Mental health not only impacts the individuals, but also impacts the team, the environment and the culture, and for those reasons it is becoming more culturally accepted to have those conversations."

While much of the change to corporate health plans is being fuelled by millennials entering the workforce, Sloane says it isn't just young workers who reap the rewards of such changes.

"Although it's being targeted at the millennials, I think it's really beneficial for the whole working population," she says.


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