As 2021 comes to a close, so may be the window to use your employer benefits. This past year has seen some employers enhance their offerings to support employees with the new challenges brought on by the pandemic, but some workers may be unaware of the extras they’re leaving on the table and they’re running out of time to use them.

“I have clients who realize they have $600 in benefits to use up, so they cram in five appointments in December,” said Kristin Riley, a registered massage therapist (RMT), who runs a private practice in Vancouver.

But along with more dollars allocated towards traditional benefits like seeing an RMT or dietician, the category of wellness benefits has expanded to even include self-care items like virtual art classes, e-books, and dumbbells.

“New ways to access virtual care will not have had the uptick that it did if it weren’t for the pandemic,” said Ingrid Gailler, vice president of benefits consulting of national accounts with Hub International, in a phone interview.

“What’s also been interesting is the uptick with men,” she said. “Virtual [counselling] is easier for certain sectors of the population. The stigma is essentially gone.”

She said the challenge now is integrating the various supports on one platform. Hub International services firms with at least 100 employees across a variety of sectors and implemented a “care concierge” within the last year at the request of its clients. Employees can access a “live care advocate” who directs them to employee assistance programs, telemedicine, or fitness apps.

Gailler says a tight labour market has forced her clients and prospects to be more creative in how they offer benefits.

“Competition is fierce, so employers have to focus on how to differentiate themselves,” she said.

That includes companies like 3M Canada, which introduced a comprehensive wellness program in 2014. Winner of the 2021 Workplace Benefits Awards, 3M’s program includes rewarding employees for taking preventative action towards their health. Employees can get points for watching a video or reading infographics (on topics like patience and resilience) that convert into dollars that can be put towards purchasing vitamins, gym memberships, or running shoes.

Popular among 3M’s 1,900 employees across the country is the Calm meditation app, according to Jackie McLennan, a benefits specialist with 3M Canada. Employees can sign up for free, and access relaxation activities from music to stories and sleeping tips.

“We were ahead of the game even before the pandemic hit,” McLennan said in a phone interview. “We’ve stayed competitive.”

The focus on non-monetary benefits as a way to keep employees happy and mentally healthy amid uncertain times is reflected in an RBC Insurance poll conducted in October, whereby 68 per cent of Canadians said they would take a job with good benefits over another job that pays more.

“We’re preparing for the likelihood that there will be more of this trend,” said Julie Gaudry, head of group benefits at RBC Insurance, in a phone interview. RBC Insurance has seen nearly half of its new long-term disability claims for young Canadians (aged 18-35) related to mental health this year, an important consideration for employers with younger staff making up a growing proportion of their workforce.

According to Canada Life and Health Insurance Association data, Canadian insurers paid out $420 million in psychology claims to support mental health in 2020 – up 24 per cent from 2019.

“With the broader recent trend of people leaving their roles as a result of job dissatisfaction, businesses must consider the value of benefits to better support employee mental and financial health,” Gaudry added. “Digitally-delivered health and wellness services are likely here to stay.”

Choice and variety of supports are key for multinational e-commerce company, Shopify Inc. It offered a one-time $2,200 allowance (or local equivalent) to every employee to support the shift to a remote-first work environment in 2020.

“Whether it be ergonomic home office equipment, grocery delivery costs, childcare support - we built this offering with flexibility,” said Chivon John, global wellness specialist at Shopify, in an email interview. “Our focus is on providing an environment where employees are seen, valued and heard [and providing] a holistic approach to supporting employee well-being year-round.”

Even before the pandemic, Shopify expanded its mental health support coverage for Canadian employees by adding $2,500 for paramedical coverage for mental health treatments and expanded the list of eligible practitioners.

Businesses are recalibrating existing benefits plans to reflect today’s diversity, equity, and inclusion movement too, according to Gailler. “Carriers are proceeding with product offerings such as optional life insurance that doesn’t have bearing on whether you’re male or female, hormone therapy, and age support,” she said.

Shopify, for example, added trauma-focused initiatives allowing therapist-led support groups to tackle issues such as coping with the pandemic, racism and intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous communities.

Gailler noted that while some benefits may be brought forward to next year depending on your employer’s plan, traditional group benefits like paramedical services will most often expire at year-end.

For RMTs like Riley who are managing an overflow of bookings at this time of year, she advises clients to use their benefits strategically and only at times of need so that she can prioritize clients who need her services the most. “I would prefer to help others out who can only come in once because they just lost a family member, are physically stressed or actually hurt,” she said.

Riley also advises clients to practice self-care at home and make use of digital resources offered by employer wellness benefits that many may not be aware of.

“People think that if you don’t use [health benefits], you lose it, but benefits benefit you throughout the year,” said Riley. “Use it, just don’t abuse it.”