Tag Archives: Conference Board of Canada

Feb 06: Best from the blogosphere

By Sheryl Smolkin

One issue on our radar this week of concern to many Canadians is the possible change to the deductibility of health and dental care insurance premiums for tax purposes in the upcoming 2017 budget. Currently these premiums are not a taxable benefit if they are paid for by your employer and they are a deductible medical expense for individuals purchasing private plans to supplement provincial medicare benefits.

On December 2, 2016 a National Post article noted that the Federal Liberals are eyeing a tax on private health and dental plans, a move that would take in about $2.9B. Journalist John Ivison reported that proponents of eliminating the credit argue that those with lower incomes but without private health plans are subsidizing those with employee-sponsored coverage. On the other hand, he said there is a strong economic case for encouraging employers to provide health coverage for employees.

Later in the same month, a coalition of health care service providers warned of the potential negative implications of taxing the premiums paid on employer-provided health and dental benefits. Ondina Love, CEO of the Canadian Dental Hygienists Association said, “When benefits were subject to provincial income tax in Quebec in 1993, almost 20% of employers dropped their coverage, including up to 50% of small employers. This loss of coverage can significantly impact the lowest-paid employees who will have trouble paying for drugs, dental and needed health care out of pocket.”

And now a Conference Board of Canada report commissioned by the Canadian Dental Association calculates that millions of Canadians will each pay at least $1,000 more if Ottawa taxes health and dental plans . And according to the National Post, the potential exists for a massive political backlash. The Canadian Dental Association reports that 50,000 protest emails have already been sent to local MPs and Bill Morneau, the finance minister, through its donttaxmyhealthbenefits.ca online petition.

Let’s hope that Prime Minister Trudeau’s comments on February 2nd suggesting that his government doesn’t plan to tax employee health and dental plans as reported in Benefits Canada will put this issue to bed once and for all for the benefit of all Canadians.

In another health-care related story this week, Marie Engen at Boomer and Echo makes The Case For A Universal Canadian Drug Program. She correctly says that prescription drug coverage in Canada varies widely depending on where you live, your health status, your income, and your age. Right now, each province has its own pharmacare program and there is no consistency. A universal prescription drug plan could not only reduce total spending. It would also cover everyone at an affordable price.

Finally, in a post on Retire Happy, Sean Cooper tackles the question  Should You Take a Deferred Pension or the Commuted Value? He says many people go to their investment advisors to seek assistance on deciding what to do with their pension. But there is a clear conflict of interest.  “Your advisor can be a good source of information for deciding which funds to invest the commuted value in should you decide to take it, but at the end of the day the decision should be yours and yours alone,” he concludes.


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Why sitting is the new smoking

By Sheryl Smolkin

Click here to listen
Click here to listen

Today I’m interviewing Avinash Maniram, a partner and senior group benefits consultant in the Vancouver office of PBI Actuarial Consultants. Avinash is a frequent speaker on health and wellness topics at educational seminars and industry conferences.

We are going to talk about the health implications of the sedentary lifestyle many of us lead. In particular we’ll learn why “sitting is the new smoking” from a health risk perspective and what we can do about it.

Q: So before we start, let’s look at some vocabulary. How would you define physical activity?

A: Well when we’re looking at physical activity from the perspective of the World Health Organization, we’re referring to undertaking at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of more vigorous exercise per week. Moderate exercise includes walking, swimming, mowing the lawn, washing your car or gardening.  Things like running and aerobics are characterized as vigorous exercise.

Q: So what’s the flip side, for example, physical inactivity?
A: Physical inactivity, is really the failure to achieve that guideline of either 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of more vigorous exercise per week.

Q: What would you consider to be a sedentary lifestyle?
A:  A sedentary lifestyle is one that’s involves an excessive amount of sitting throughout the day.

Q: We’ve been hearing a lot in the media lately about the health risks of sitting too much. Is sitting actually that bad and how much is too much?
A: Recently a lot more studies have shown direct correlations between sedentary lifestyles and the incidence of various types of diseases and heart conditions. Research from the University of Toronto indicates that the impact of sitting on a person’s lifestyle or their health really kicks in for those who have been spending at least eight hours a day in a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, the average Canadian adult spends close to 10  hours a day in a sedentary state.

Q: What actually happens to our body when we sit too much?
A: Our circulation system is really developed to operate when we are in motion so when we’re spending too much time in a sedentary state, our muscles are no longer load-bearing.  They begin to atrophy and they become weaker.

Q: You mentioned heart disease but what other health conditions can too much sitting trigger?
A: What the studies have shown is that a sedentary lifestyle can impact the risk of certain types of cancers, most predominantly colon cancer and breast cancer. In the case of cardiovascular disease in Canada, approximately 25% of all cases are directly linked to a sedentary lifestyle. There are also links to diabetes. In addition, the more sedentary your lifestyle, the more prone you are to anxiety and depression.

Q: What about the impact of sitting on mortality rates? By the way, I want you to know that since we’ve started talking I’ve decided I can do this interview standing just as well as I can do it sitting so I got up from my chair.
A: That’s fantastic. Statistics Canada and the Conference Board of Canada did a study which found that if we could lower the proportion of the time that we spend sitting or in the sedentary state by just 10%, that could result in a 30% lower risk of mortality.

Q: Does sedentary behavior also impact productivity?
A: It certainly does. You can imagine if you’re sitting at your desk in the usual crunched, hunched over thinking position, over time,  circulation is impacted and as a result your brain gets less oxygen. So colloquially I guess we would call this “foggy brain. Resulting  poor mental health and sore backs can also have an impact on productivity.

Q: The other thing that really surprised me is that sitting is viewed as an independent risk factor. So even if I’m getting my hundred and fifty minutes a week, that’s not enough if I sit all the time.
A: Absolutely. So much of the mainstream media has been focused on getting those 150 minutes of moderate activity in a week. But if you’re sitting at a desk for eight hours a day and then you head to the gym for one hour afterwards, that doesn’t undo the eight hours of damage caused by sitting. So for every 30 minutes of sitting we should be getting up and walking around for about five minutes. Those periodic intervals of activity do a lot more to reverse the damage done by a sedentary lifestyle.

Q: Are there any guidelines for the kind of activity we should be interspersing throughout the day and how frequently? Can you give me some examples?
A: This is the neat thing. So often when we go to sessions or we read about these things, the solutions often times are so impractical that it puts them out of reach. This is one of the areas where the fixes are actually quite simple. One of the things that we can do is we can set up some mental triggers so when the phone rings, if you’re in the office, instead of taking that call sitting down you can stand up.

If you are in an office tower you can walk up or down the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Another obvious one is limiting the amount of time that you spend watching TV. For those in office settings, instead of sending an e-mail to your colleague across the floor or instead of phoning to ask them a question,  get up and walk over to have that discussion.

Q: What if any guidelines are there for parents with children who want to ensure that their kids are sufficiently active?
A: Well this is one of the biggest challenges that we have right now. If you look at the guidelines for children, they should be getting at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day. The experts also recommend less than two hours of screen time daily.

One suggestion is to replace the video games with outdoor activities. Sometimes you can use it as a bargaining chip. Often I find that when the kids go outside, I end up having to call them back in, because they’ve forgotten about their screens and they’re back to being playful children again.

Q: What about standing or adjustable desks or treadmill desks? How useful are they and how can employees convince their employers to pilot them or make them available?
A: Well on the surface they are very useful because they combat the immediate problem which sitting at the desk for eight hours a day. When you’re trying to sell the idea of an adjustable desk to your employer, try to convince the company that this is the right thing to do. You really just need to point to the health benefits — less time off work and less presenteeism for those who probably should be off work but insist on coming in everyday. The studies have shown that there is really no decrease to productivity with standing desks.

Q: You’ve been doing a lot of work on the impact of sedentary lifestyles. You’ve made some changes in the lives of yourself and your children. You are also a partner in your firm. Are your colleagues getting the message and have you been the catalyst for some of these changes in your own office?
A: We did a presentation on the impact of sedentary living and you could see the light bulbs go off in people’s minds. It’s something that’s really taken our little office by storm.

We see the message is getting through, just judging by the number of associates who have requested standing desks. They are not mandatory by any means but if an associate wants one we will certainly make it happen.

I’ve also noticed a lot more in-person meetings and fewer phone calls and e-mails to discuss work with our colleagues. When I do performance reviews, we go for walk, we go outside to have the discussion. Whenever there are smaller internal meetings, we may get up, buy a water or something and come back to the office and finish up.

Thanks for chatting with me today Avinash on this fascinating topic. My pleasure Sheryl.

1dec-avinash

 

 

 

Avinash Maniram, PBI Actuarial Consultants Ltd.

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This is the edited version of the transcript of a podcast recorded in November 2016.

Are Canadians saving enough for retirement?

By Sheryl Smolkin

Are Canadians saving enough for retirement? It depends who you ask.

A BMO survey conducted in early 2014 revealed that only 43% of Canadians planned to make RRSP contributions by the March 1st deadline, down from 50% the previous year. An October 2014 study from the Conference Board of Canada reports that almost four in 10 Canadians are not saving and nearly 20% of respondents said they will never retire.

Yet a 2015 study of 12,000 Canadian households conducted by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. says that four out of every five of the nation’s households are on track to maintain their standard of living in retirement. The research reveals that most of the unprepared households belong to one of two groups of middle to high-income households:

  • Those who do not contribute enough to their defined contribution (DC) pension plans or group, and
  • Those who do not have access to an employer-sponsored plan and have below average personal savings.

The McKinsey study suggests that since the retirement savings challenge is quite narrow, the best way to address it should be an approach targeted to these groups that is balanced and maintains the fairness of the system for all Canadian households.

And now, Malcolm Hamilton, a Senior Fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and a former Partner with Mercer has weighed in on the issue with his commentary Do Canadians Save Too Little?

Hamilton agrees with the McKinsey research that Canadians are reasonably well-prepared for retirement. Most save more than the five percent household savings rate. Most can retire comfortably on less than the traditional 70% retirement target. Furthermore, the size of the group that appears to be “at risk” cannot be accurately determined nor can the attributes of its members be usefully described.

He notes that a couple can live comfortably after retirement despite a reduction in income of more than 30% for several reasons:

  • They no longer need to save for retirement.
  • They no longer contribute to CPP and EI.
  • One of their largest pre-retirement expenses – supporting children – ends.
  • During their working lives the couple acquires non-financial assets like the family home, cars, furniture, art and jewelry. Some can be turned into a stream of income. Some cannot. But they do not need to budget to re-acquire these items during retirement.
  • Finally, any tolerable reduction in post-retirement income is amplified by a disproportionate reduction in income tax due to the progressive nature of our tax system and special tax breaks reserved for seniors.

As studies of our retirement system become more sophisticated, Hamilton thinks we should focus more on solutions for individuals who are not saving enough as opposed to a blanket approach that will impact everyone

So how can we fill the “gaps” identified by these studies?

Hamilton is not a big fan of an enhanced Canada or Quebec Pension plan. He agrees that CPP/QPP are effective ways to increase the post-retirement incomes, and to reduce the pre-retirement incomes, of all working Canadians.

However, he says they are ineffective ways to increase the post-retirement incomes of hard-to-identify minorities who are thought to be saving too little. “Their strength is their reach – they can efficiently move everyone to a common goal,” Hamilton says. “But what if there is no common goal? What if there are only individual goals dictated by personal circumstances and priorities?”

The report concludes that because gross replacement targets are unreliable measures of retirement income adequacy due to the diversity of our population, programs like the CPP/QPP can go only so far in addressing our retirement needs. They can establish a lowest common denominator – a replacement target that all Canadians should strive to equal or exceed.

“Beyond that, we need better-targeted programs – programs that are better able to recognize and address our individual needs,” Hamilton says.

What would you trade for a good pension?

By Sheryl Smolkin

A recent survey of Canadians revealed that whether or not they currently have a workplace pension plan, the majority would gladly trade off other benefits for any retirement savings plan or a better pension plan at work.

These data were collected by the Conference Board of Canada in a June 2014 comprehensive study into the experiences and perspectives of employers and individual Canadians. Conducted with the support of Aon Hewitt and the National Association of Federal Retirees, the study focused on a variety of issues related to workplace and public retirement savings/pension plans and retirement readiness.

Both employers and individual Canadians across the country were polled. The survey of individuals was completed by a panel of 1,656 Canadians aged 18 and over weighted by gender, region and age.

Who have retirement savings/pension plans?

About 57% of the employed survey respondents indicated they have some form of retirement savings/pension plan such as a Group RRSP, a defined benefit plan or a defined contribution plan at work. Thirty-nine percent said they don’t have a workplace plan and a little over four percent of the total number of respondents “did not know” whether they had one or not.

Respondents in the not-for-profit and private sectors were less likely to report having any form of workplace retirement savings or pension plan, while those working in government were most likely to report having plans. Size of organization and union status were also important predictors of whether or not respondents had a workplace retirement/savings/pension plan.

Indeed, unionized workers were over 1.5 times more likely than those not in a unionized position to have workplace plans. And, more employees of large companies with a staff of over 5,000 reported having a retirement savings plan or a pension plan.

Employees with retirement savings/pension plans 

Who would trade benefits for enhanced pensions?
Forty-three percent of men versus only 28% of women said they would likely trade some aspects of their total rewards for a greater employer contribution to their plan. Also of note, women were roughly three times more likely than men to say they “did not know” whether they would trade or not.

Over 40% of those aged 35–44 and 45–54 said they would likely trade some aspects of their total reward package — while only about 30% of those 65 years of age and over said the same thing. Those 25–34 are about equally divided on this question.

As household income rises, so too does the likelihood that Canadians would consider trading some aspects of their total rewards package for a greater employer contribution to their plans.

Private sector employees are more likely than those in other sectors to indicate that they would trade some aspects of their benefits/rewards for a greater contribution into their plan by their employers. That said, it is of interest that over 30% of those in the government sector would also make a trade for a greater retirement savings contribution .

What benefits would they trade?
Employed survey respondents were asked if given the option, how likely they would be to trade parts of their total rewards package (pay, training, benefits, etc.) to receive greater retirement savings plan/pension plan contributions at work.

A significant minority (37%) indicate it is likely they would make a change. Slightly fewer (33%) say it is unlikely. The remainder are on the fence (i.e., they answered that they are neither likely nor unlikely).

Among those who reported that they would make a trade, or who answered in the “neither” category, anywhere from one-third to one-half would trade a specific item for a greater contribution to their retirement plans.

“Training/learning and development opportunities” was the item most likely to be given up. Nearly 56% indicated that they would make this trade-off. Salary increases were least likely to be considered for a trade.

Table 1: Likelihood of trading specific workplace benefits/rewards for greater employer retirement plan contributions

Likely
Training/learning and development opportunities 55%
Incentive pay (bonuses etc.) 48%
Vacation days 23%
Certain health benefits 38%
Salary increases 35%

Totals may not add up to 100% due to rounding. SOURCE: THE CONFERENCE BOARD OF CANADA

Employed Canadians without a retirement savings plan

How many are interested in participating in a workplace retirement savings/pension plan? 
Almost 7 in 10 employed respondents currently without a retirement savings/pension plan would be interested in participating in such a plan if it were offered. Only a small proportion of respondents (16%) were not interested in participating. The remainder (16%) noted they don’t know whether or not they’d participate if they were offered the opportunity.

With 109 mentions, DB plans topped the list of desired plans. TFSAs were a close second and DC plans came in third.

Who would trade benefits for pensions?
Almost 4 in 10 survey respondents without a retirement savings/pension plan indicate they would be willing to trade parts of their total rewards package to receive any form of retirement savings/pension plan from their workplace. One-quarter said they would be unlikely to do so, and the remainder (36%) are sitting on the fence — i.e., they indicate that they would be neither likely nor unlikely to make a trade.

Of interest, this subset of survey respondents shares similar preferences as those who currently have a plan and would trade for an increased contribution to their plans (see Table 1 above). Further, the proportion of each group indicating that they would be likely to make a trade on each of the items listed is almost the same.

For those currently without a plan the list of potential trades and the % stating that they’d be likely to trade the benefit/reward is as follows:

Table 2: Likelihood of employees trading specific workplace benefits/rewards for participation in a retirement savings/pension plan

Likely
Training/learning and development opportunities 56%
Incentive pay (bonuses etc.) 47%
Vacation days 42%
Certain health benefits 38%
Salary increases 31%

Totals may not add up to 100% due to rounding SOURCE: THE CONFERENCE BOARD OF CANADA

What this means

One facet of the current study explored the role of retirement savings/pension plans in attracting and retaining employees. Without fail, survey respondents said the top three items that attracted them to their current employer/workplace and those that keep them there are:

  • The work environment.
  • The type of work done.
  • Work-life balance.

While 65% of those currently employed cite the organization’s retirement savings/pension plan as being important or very important to their attraction, it only ranked 9th out of 12 potential items.

However, these plans moved up in importance as a tool for retention. In fact, 69% of respondents rate retirement savings/pension plans as important/very important—and with this increase, the relative ranking of these plans  moved from 9th place as an attractor to 6th place out of 12 as a means to retain staff.

This suggests that while employees may not be as concerned about the nature of retirement savings/pension plans or even if one is available when they are first hired, it’s one of the factors they consider later on when a recruiter or another company come knocking.