Health care can be recruiting tool 

Pressure relieved by cultivating healthy baby boomer, Gen Y workers

By Vivian Moreau

Whistler employers should forego ski passes as an employment perk and provide health care benefits and incentives instead, says B.C’s largest health benefits provider.

Workers from away who come to Whistler may not have health care benefits as a top priority, but faced with injury or homesickness benefits will be more attractive, says a director of Pacific Blue Cross, the province’s largest non-profit provider of group and individual health care benefits.

“Set up a modest program that recognizes this (moving to Whistler for work) is a risk for them,” said John McGrath, Pacific Blue Cross’s director of group client development. “Employers that want to differentiate themselves from the competition could use that as a great recruiting tool.”

In town to address the Canadian Pension and Benefits Institute conference at the Telus Conference Centre, McGrath and Blue Cross vice-president Anne Kinvig addressed about 150 corporate and business human resource representatives from across Canada on how to confront spiraling costs of providing health care benefits to employees.

McGrath said studies show that if health care strategies don’t shift soon, in 10 years 70 per cent of British Columbia’s budget will go toward health care costs. Smaller families have produced a reduced Generation Y labour force that cannot support demands placed on health care by aging baby boomers. He said punitive methods used the last 20 years, like higher benefits premiums and drug restrictions, have proven ineffective in controlling employer costs, which have risen about 15 per cent in the last year alone.

“We can’t wait for the provinces and feds to resolve this,” McGrath said, “This is going to be a long-term struggle for everybody and so the shift is what is within our control and what can employers do to attract and retain employees?”

McGrath suggests the key lies in encouraging workers to make lifestyle changes that will in turn place fewer demands on health care. To do this requires including workers in the process and asking for input and devising strategies that contribute to a healthier workplace. McGrath said establishing wellness committees is a good place for larger companies to start, but even small businesses can be a catalyst for change.

Fifteen years ago the city of North Vancouver took an interest in staff health by subsidizing recreation centre memberships. When a new city hall was built in 1997 an onsite gymnasium was added. A variety of classes, including pilates, meditation and massage, are offered. The city’s director of human resources says what started as an administration-driven project has now been adopted by staff, with almost half of workers involved in employer-sponsored recreation programs. Richard Shore said businesses big and small can learn from North Vancouver’s experience.

“You don’t have to have the most elaborate program. We started small and grew from there. We didn’t have a grand plan or scheme — we just knew it was the right thing to do and we went ahead and did it.”

Whistler’s Chamber of Commerce president says over 140 members are signed up in the organization’s group employee benefits package that provides affordable health coverage for small business owners. Louise Lundy said the chamber’s Spirit program provides options for participants other than a discounted ski pass, like discounted spa or Meadow Park sports centre passes, as rewards for taking part in the program.

Building a healthier worker population in B.C. requires a dramatic change in organizational thinking, McGrath said.

“The message is there’s a power shift from employers being able to ask ‘Why should you work for us?’ to employees being able to ask ‘Why should I work for you?’ The tables have completely turned,” he said.

McGrath said Blue Cross’s message is getting through, with 40 per cent of the organization’s members now using wellness strategies and others lining up to learn more.

“They’re not asking us why we should do this anymore, they’re asking us how.”

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