How to design your benefits plan with recruitment and retention in mind

By: Bill Zolis

Canadian employers are facing unprecedented challenges when it comes to building and maintaining a stable and productive work force. For some, the prospect of growing and expanding their business is severely hampered by the difficulty in finding the qualified and motivated employees they rely on to drive them forward. And for many others, just maintaining their current staffing levels is the first order of business.

Which brings me to my favourite subject – employee benefits and, in this case, their fundamental role in making employers and workplaces competitive in attracting and holding onto the best talent in the employment pool.

This was the subject of a presentation I was recently asked to make for the Ajax-Pickering Board of trade Employee Compensation Live Seminar. It was a thoroughly enjoyable event, along with my fellow presenters Christine Ashton, a partner at Wilson Vukelich LLP, and Stacey Fox, VP of Human Resources at Safran Landing Systems Canada. Great attendance, lots of questions.

The fact is that we find ourselves at a stage in the economic – and generational – cycle where the demand for talented workers has turned employment into a seller’s market. Gone are the days when simply posting an employment ad would produce a flood of well-qualified candidates.

– A recent Harries poll found that 80% of Canadian employers say they enhanced their total rewards programs in 2022 to better attract and retain employees, up from 63 per cent in 2020 and 2021.

– The survey found 44% said they plan to update their total rewards program in 2023.

– Three-quarters of Canadian employers say they expect to face hiring challenges in 2023.

– Two-thirds said they’ve taken steps to make hiring easier, and are even reducing qualification criteria for open positions.

A question I’m often asked, and one that I tried to answer at the Employment Compensation Seminar, is, “Where do you see benefits going now and in the near future?” From what I’m seeing and hearing from clients, I think we can identify five clear trends.

  1. Virtual care is here to stay. It can provide critical telehealth services to people living in remote communities. It’s a viable option when in-person care is not strictly necessary and patients can skip the drive to the doctor’s office and the time in the waiting room. It can be the preferred option for those with transmissible illnesses and those with mobility issues. And it’s often just more efficient and convenient.
  2. Mental health supports will continue to expand. According to Benefits Canada, 24% of plan sponsors increased their maximum level of coverage for mental-health counseling. The stigma around mental health is being eliminated by encouraging dialogue.
  3. Employers are looking harder at prevention strategies. Many plan sponsors are introducing wellness programs. These help employees identify risk factors for preventable diseases and promote strategies to improve their short- and long-term mental, physical and financial health.
  4. Plans will become more personalized. Employers are investing in more offerings and also customizing them to the specific needs of their work force. Plan sponsors and employees are exploring the value of personalized treatments, such as pharmacogenetics.
  5. Chronic disease care will be tackled more holistically. A comprehensive future approach around chronic diseases (such as diabetes) will include support around the value of healthy eating, exercise, stress reduction and counseling to learn to live well with a chronic disease, empowering the member to make better choices and to take charge of their care.

All this said, we still face big challenges. I think that plan sponsors, and the benefits sector supporting them, are heading in the right direction. But none of us can afford to stand still. Which brings me to the second question I’m asked most often: What are the possible solutions? Where might we be going next?

– Workplace pensions that offers inflation-protected lifetime retirement income. Seven out of 10 workers would prefer a better pension over higher pay and 86% of employers who offer a pension say they are extremely or very important to recruitment, retention, and reducing stress.

– Employers must be flexible with work times and working from home depending on the industry. Flexibility is no longer perceived as a ‘perk’ by employees, but an expectation. 81% of Canadian employees said that flexible work policies directly affect whether they stay at or leave a job.

– I think it’s generally accepted that benefits are now playing a much bigger role in the overall rewards program offered by employers, Employees are serious about taking care of their health. Studies show employees are excited to embrace innovative digital solutions, such as virtual care, which make benefits accessible and personalized.

But I would also emphasize, as I have discussed in this blog many times in the past, that there are at least three dimensions to the true value of benefits in attracting and holding onto talent.

– Yes, there is the dollars-and-cents calculation that employees will do in considering your total rewards program. In fact, this is often the determining factor at the hiring stage. What benefits are on offer, how flexible is it in responding to individual needs, and how does it stack up to what competitors are offering?

– Second, however, is the role of benefits in workplace culture. A competitive benefits program should send a very clear message – we care about our people.

– Third, an effective benefits plan must be part of the overall goal of the well workplace. Benefits should not only help solve problems – paying for prescriptions, for example – it should also have a clear focus on preventing problems – encouraging wellness, offering fitness options, providing counseling and so on.

The bottom line, I think, is that employers are now looking at their benefits plans much more holistically than ever before. They are not an add-on. They are an integral part of overall rewards, retention and recruitment, forward-looking wellness and the overall workplace culture.


I really appreciate comments, ideas, suggestions or just observations about the blog or any other topics in benefits management. I always look forward to hearing from readers. If there’s anything you want to share, please email me at

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