Top Employee Benefits of 2020
Employers have long understood that the right benefits package could not only attract but help retain valuable employees. With so much of the business world in a state of flux and uncertainty due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, retaining valuable employees is one way companies can give themselves (and their best people) some stability and consistency. But what does that mean for employee benefits?
“Strategies and benefits need to support employees during a crisis that address the whole person — financial, connectedness, and physical and behavioral health,” suggests a recent article in Benefits News.
They believe that working from home (now known in our new lexicon as simple SFH) will remain the new normal for approximately 30% of American workers, whose jobs most lend themselves to remote work.
“This will occur,” they predict, “as employers yield to a collective resistance from workers feeling the residual and ongoing economic impacts of the pandemic.”
Out with the Old – to Some Degree, Anyway
Workplace perks such as unlimited office snacks or free lunch have lost their luster for employees who are now working from home. And they aren’t the only benefits rendered irrelevant by COVID-19. Just one year ago, in July 2019, these were some of the top employee benefits predicted for 2020:
- Pet-friendly benefits including bring-your-pet-to-work and voluntary pet health insurance plans
- Paid family leave for dads as well as moms
- Transportation subsidies to reduce the cost and relieve the headaches of commuting
- Flexible scheduling of work hours
- Technology support such as providing company-owned smartphones or other devices employees can use for personal business as well, or subsidizing the cost of personal devices also used for business
- Inclusive healthcare benefits that cover employees and families without LBGTQ or similar limitations
- Student debt repayment programs
- Mental health insurance/assistance
- Financial wellness programs
How things have changed! Pets? Transportation? Flexible scheduling? Automatically resolved by the WFH transformation. And, yet, some things haven’t changed at all, they have simply come into sharper focus. According to Best Money Moves, the intent of tech support benefits was to “ensure employees have the right equipment to get the work done whether they’re in the office, traveling or working remotely.” Prophetic, one might say.
Even before the pandemic became an issue, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) cited results of the 2019-2020 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, revealing that 37% of employees would choose more substantial benefits over a pay increase. Forty-two percent said they would give up pay for expanded health benefits. That number was just 27% in 2013.
Healthcare Is the #1 Priority with Employees
Just last month, the SHRM noted, “As employers await word on health plan costs for next year, which insurers usually provide in November, they must decide how to allocate benefits budgets, choose which benefits programs to offer and figure out how to communicate changes to employees.” They warned again employer complacency regarding healthcare costs going into 2021, because “an increase in demand for delayed procedures and continuing care related to COVID-19 is likely to drive healthcare costs higher next year.”
To date, their research indicates:
- 37% of employers don’t plan to change healthcare benefits for 2021
- 48% haven’t decided on that yet
- 12% expect to make moderate cost-cutting changes
- 3% admit they will have to make significant cost-saving changes
Some of these measures – expanding virtual and telehealth programs, adding or broadening voluntary benefits options, and increasing assistance handling high-cost medical and pharma claims – may save the company money, but employees are also likely to view them as positives.
Back-to-work at the office presents its own set of health concerns. “COVID numbers are on the rise, employees are scared to return to an office environment, and nearly a quarter of employees are at risk for serious complications from COVID-19 if infected,” says HR Executive. While offering a congenial work environment has been a strong recruiting point for companies in recent years, now the selling point will be a safe work environment.
“HR leaders need to be prepared to meet employees where they are and support them according to their specific experiences and needs.” That will certainly include “preparing the workplace for employees to return, like social distancing guidelines, protective gear, sanitization stations, temperature checks, new protocols for meeting spaces, kitchens, keypads, visitors and updated floor plans.”
HR can take the lead here, they suggest, easing “the transition for employees by showing empathy, listening to your organization, overcommunicating intentionally and regularly, proactively educating employees about their benefits and giving employees digital tools.”
A growing number of employers have recognized in the last few years that mental and behavioral health can have as much or greater impact on employee attitude and productivity as physical health. The American Psychiatric Association reported (pre-COVID) that almost 25% of American workers suffer from depression, resulting in countless days off to deal with their issues. However, the World Health Organization states that employers can see a 4x return for every dollar spent on treating common mental disorders.
Companies with existing employee assistance programs (EAP) can step up promotion of these resources for employees, emphasizing program confidentiality. And a number of employers have indicated they plan to add EAP to their employee benefits menu in the wake of COVID-19.
PwC says that money is the single biggest stressor for most employees. Financial worries can cause physical health problems as well as diminished effectiveness at work. At least a quarter of employees would love to see a financial wellness program in their benefits package.
On the financial downside, some companies will have to reduce or eliminate 401(k) and similar contributions, thanks to revenue reductions caused by the virus. Many employees have already curtailed or eliminated their own contributions, due to worries about their future income.
Communication Is Critical Now
Uncertainty is the new normal, but employers can combat fear and stress by communicating frequently and openly with employees about prospective benefits changes and the reasons behind them. SHRM especially recommends that employers “engage employees in benefits decision making as much as possible, because the decisions employees make for the 2021 benefits plan year could be more critical than ever.”
Everyone understands that benefits will disappear altogether if the company itself falters financially. But understanding goes both ways, says Art Dickerson, CRO at Catapult Health. His recommendation: “With employees stressed and some working harder than ever to help their employers stay financially sound during a pandemic—while also dealing with their own struggles due to the complexities of the crisis—employers and HR leaders should step up their recognition efforts.”
Traditional rewards such as bonuses are still appreciated, he says, but in these trying times, small gestures such as a “how are you doing” email or a simple thank-you can have the greatest impact.