We’re learning that there is no going back after COVID – only going forward  

By Bill Zolis

We’ve spent a year and a half waiting for the pandemic to be over, and now the daily numbers are going down and the restrictions are starting to be lifted. At the same time, we are realizing that, even if the virus disappears entirely, the sudden, life-changing and work-changing effects it forced on us are going to be with us in the long run. 

There is a good deal of optimism, with vaccination rates in Canada creeping up to 80% “fully vaccinated,” and signs that the third wave of the disease may be coming to an end. Maybe this is a good time to take a deep breath, look around, and take stock of where we find ourselves today. 

From where I sit, what I’m seeing and hearing and reading about from a work and benefits point of view, here are some of the big changes that are a part of our new reality going forward. 

Many people are worried about their financial well-being during and after the pandemic 

– A poll by the Angus Reid Organization found that 34% of Canadians reported being worse off, financially, than they were 12 months ago. That’s a very high number, compared to similar polls in recent years, and I’m guessing that many of these people were employed in the retail or hospitality sectors.  

– 47% of people in the poll said that their financial picture had not changed, and 16% said they were actually better off now than before. 

– 15% described themselves as “thriving” financially. 

– 42% said they were “secure.” 

– 25% described themselves as “challenged.” 

– 18% were “struggling.” 

As well, the poll found a strong correlation between income level before the pandemic, and financial condition today – the higher the income, the less likely they were to be affected by the pandemic. 

Work-from-home is here to stay 

There are a couple of new terms that I’m starting to hear more and more – the “in-person” meeting and “on-site” work. I guess there are now the exceptions, with virtual meetings and work-from-home as the new normal in large sectors of the economy. 

Statistics Canada has just released some new numbers on working from home. 

– 32% percent of working Canadians, about 3.1 million employees, are working from home in 2021, compared to 4% in 2016. 

– 90% of people working from home said they were at least as productive as before, with 58% saying productivity was about the same, and 32% saying it had increased. 

– 80% said they would like to have the option to work at least half their hours from home after the pandemic. In fact 24% said they would prefer to work most of their hours from home, and 15% said they would prefer to work exclusively from home. 

Virtual health care has gone through the roof  

We’ve talked about this before and, in a lot of ways, virtual health care (or telehealth, or telemedicine) is an idea whose time had come well before the pandemic. It’s just that the restrictions on travel and in-person contacts have given it a huge jump-start. 

– According to the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), 91% of people who have used virtual health care were satisfied by the care the received. 

– The CMA reports that in-person visits to doctors’ offices fell by 80%, and that virtual consultations rose to 71% of all visits. 

– The CMA also reports that 46% of Canadians would prefer to use virtual care as their first point of contact with the medical system. 

– A recent Ipsos poll found that 70% of Canadians would like to see virtual health care as an option in the future, even after the pandemic has run its course. 

– According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) the number of Emergency hospital visits dropped by 50%, year over year, during the pandemic. 

Virtual health care as a benefit is also going through the roof 

study by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IBEFP) found that virtual health care, in various forms, is being offered as a benefit by a rapidly growing number of plans. 

– It found that a third of employers were offering virtual health care as a benefit before the pandemic. 

– A further 19% have started offering it during the pandemic. 

– In addition, 17% were considering or in the process of adding it to their plans. 

– As well, 9% of plans that had employee co-pay as part of the benefit decided to eliminate the employee portion, and a further 9% were considering doing so. 

Mental health is big 

One of the biggest changes, with regard to mental health or mental wellness, is a fairly subtle one. It is that we are suddenly no longer afraid to use the term, and that we are now all on board with the idea of discussing mental wellness as an issue in the workplace and an area that needs to be addressed in our benefits plans. Where we used to talk about issues such as stress, and substance abuse, and work-life balance as separate issues, we now see them as part of the big picture. And, more significantly, where we used to see those issues as personal and separate from the workplace, we now accept that the workplace plays an important role. 

– According to the IBEFP study, 28% of employers have expanded their mental health benefits or added new components during the pandemic. 

– A further 24% were considering doing so. 

– 10% of employers have added specific telepsychiatry or telemental-health benefits, and a further 15% are considering doing so.  

So let’s be optimistic and say that, a year from now, COVID is either gone or largely under control, and that all the restrictions we’ve seen have been lifted. Financial recovery in the hardest hit sectors will still be a priority. Most people who can work from home will still be doing so part or all of the time. Mental wellness will be a priority in the workplace and in benefits plans. Telehealth will be the norm for almost all situations where it is an option. And those of us in the benefits sector will still be working to adapt and fine-tune our products and services to the new reality. 


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 bill@penmore.com 

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