Survey after survey finds Canadians want more vacation time and better health benefits at work. But while most of us have some extended health coverage, few of us are actually making use of the benefits we have.

The Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association estimates over 23 million people, or 67 per cent of the population have extended health care benefits, which includes not-for-profit health insurance benefit providers. 

But according to this year’s Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey, which tracks data from employer-sponsored health benefit plans, only 13 per cent of those surveyed said they understood their benefits "very well."

As costs to administer extended health plans continue to rise, employers are trying to meet the wellness needs of their employees by offering strategies for stress management, regular medical screenings and other preventive health care measures. Now they’re also faced with trying to encourage employees to use them.

When Waterloo, Ontario based Economical Insurance realized only about 20 per cent of its employees were participating in a fitness membership reimbursement program, they decided to develop a new wellness strategy.

So the company collected its own data, drawn from the health metrics of its employees. Registered nurses provided individual, confidential, on-site screening clinics, where employees had blood glucose, blood pressure, waist to hip ratio, body fat and cholesterol measurements taken. Nurses then showed the employees where their scores fell compared to ideal ranges and offered strategies to achieve those goals.

Jennifer Allan

Jennifer Allan of Economical Insurance says their new wellness strategy has been successful. (courtesy Economical Insurance)

Jennifer Allan is vice-president of HR programs and corporate communications at Economical Insurance, she says the company then used the aggregate data to build a program tailored to the needs of the employees.

“We found out that we have a relatively sedentary group of employees, wasn’t exactly headline news, but we also had actual data that told us that our employees were on the obese side and we had health issues around weight,” she says.

“So we knew we needed to tackle that through physical activity, through proper nutrition, through stress management initiatives to really impact obesity as an issue.”

With that kind of specialized attention, participation rates in the program increased to 70 per cent.

Creating new strategies may become more common as employers aim to reduce chronic disease rates in the workplace. Last year, The Great-West Life Assurance Company completed a 10-year review of trends in health and dental benefits. The most common claim their members were filing was for dental benefits, with just under 80 per cent submitting claims for routine checkups.   

They also found an increase in vision care claims across all age groups, but the highest rate of usage was in the 55-59 year old demographic and it was less than 50 per cent.  

The survey also took a look at paramedical benefits, like chiropractic, massage, physiotherapy and psychological services. All have seen an increase in usage over the last decade, but are still being claimed by only a small percentage of those eligible for the benefits.

Massage claims have increased from just under 10 per cent of plan members to about 27 per cent since 2001. Chiropractic and physiotherapy claims are now sitting at 18 and just over 15 per cent respectively.

But Economical Insurance's Jennifer Allan says by continuing to measure employee health scores year over year since 2008, they’re already seeing benefits. Health scores have improved, and there have also been reductions in drug claims and short and long term disability claims.   

“We had amazing results. And I think the key was that our program hit on areas that our employees really valued and the program was motivational.”