Much has changed in the United States as the country slowly emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, including the dialogue around employee benefits.
The effects of the pandemic exposed major gaps in childcare, mental and physical health care, and financial wellness, underscoring the role that voluntary benefits play in helping workers stay physically, mentally, and financially healthy — particularly in times of national emergency.
“The big realization a lot of these companies have had during the pandemic is that there’s so much that happens in your personal life that affects your work,” said Brian Kropp, Vice President for the advisory firm Gartner, in his conversation with The Washington Post.
For employers, the issue is one of retainment: Almost one in five workers left their jobs during the pandemic, with 42% citing compensation as their reason for leaving, and 30% switching for a job with better benefits.
Data suggests that employers got the message. An April 2020 report published by Harvard Business Review surveyed 500 human resource managers and C-Suite executives in the United States and found that 98% plan to offer new or expanded employee benefits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically:
- 66% said that they intend to increase work flexibility benefits
- 63% said they intend to increase childcare benefits
- 59% cited improved mental health as one of the primary outcomes of caregiving benefits
Here are three of the benefits employees care most about post-pandemic, and insight on how employers are implementing them.
Working parents have faced a particularly challenging reality in recent months, having to choose between staying home with their children as schools and childcare centers closed, staying employed, or juggling both employment and childcare while navigating a global pandemic.
The problem overwhelmingly affects mothers — one-third of women between 25 to 44 years old cite child care demands as their reason for being unemployed, compared to only 12% of men.
For parents who have managed to “do it all,” the decision to remain employed despite having kids at home comes at the cost of their wellbeing and productivity: 51% of working parents report they are distracted to either a “moderate” or “great” extent on days when their children are learning from home.
Employers are now facing the reality that childcare benefits are crucial in order for parents to stay with their organizations and be effective employees. More than 90% of employees at organizations that provide flexibility to working parents plan to stay in their roles for at least 12 months. In contrast, only 66% of employees at organizations that are not flexible to the needs of working parents plan to stay for at least the next year.
In 2021, many employers have signaled plans to introduce expanded childcare benefits including subsidized childcare and tutoring, stipends for nannies, and flexible work plans that allow parents to work from home when needed.
“While the need for better childcare benefits is definitely not new, the pandemic has forced a universal truth into the spotlight: Childcare is simply integral to absolutely everything. Without it, parents can’t work, business can’t grow, and our economy collectively suffers,” Alyssa Johnson, Vice President of global client management for Care.com, told Fortune.
Amazon, for example, has offered 10 days of subsidized child and adult care until October, while Accenture has partnered with childcare provider Bright Horizons to offer its employees subsidized, small-group, part-time supervision during school hours.
Mental health benefits
The prevalence of mental illness in the United States was already growing prior to March 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic spurred an all-out mental health crisis in the United States.
In a May 2020 report, global advisory firm Willis Towers Watson (WTW) reported 92% of employees are experiencing anxiety due to the pandemic, with 55% reporting anxiety to a moderate or high degree.
70% of employees report that anxiety and stress from the pandemic have had a significant impact on their productivity, and a mere one-third of employees say they are able to balance working from home with other responsibilities.
In light of this data, the report encourages employers to take “bold action” when addressing the ongoing mental health crisis, using a four-pronged approach to determine what mental health benefits to implement:
- Step 1 requires employers to understand the baseline mental health needs of their employees by examining employee assistance program (EAP) reports, lifestyle risks, disease prevalence, and barriers to care among employees.
- Step 2 involves designing a benefits plan around the needs of employees, which could mean expanding the role of EAP to include a variety of virtual therapy options and ensuring that employees are aware of the full spectrum of EAP services.
- Step 3 requires employers to commit to creating a workplace culture that holistically aligns with their organization’s values and emphasizes mental health. This might include:
- Providing training to help managers recognize signs of anxiety and depression in employees and refer them to resources.
- Increasing flexible work hours to help employees manage work and home life.
- Emphasizing social connection among employees by forming mental health employee resource groups.
- Step 4 encourages employers to develop frameworks to measure and improve mental health benefits by tracking leading indicators like registration and utilization rates, as well as lagging indicators like health-related program outcomes.
According to the report, employers in the coming years plan to beef up already existing behavioral health programs by adding new telehealth services, improving advocacy and navigation support, taking actions to address stigma, and increasing communication with employees to make them aware of programs that can help.
Financial wellness services
A majority of American workers report feeling increased levels of financial stress since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. To be clear, most Americans were already stressed about money before the pandemic — but extreme levels of unemployment and job insecurity coupled with pay cuts, isolation, fear of contracting COVID-19, and general uncertainty spurred a significant uptick in finance-related anxiety.
Employers should note that the effects of this stress impact their bottom line: Research shows that loss of productivity coupled with absenteeism from financial stress costs employers more than $1,900 a year per employee — totaling an estimated annual loss of $1 million for midsized employers and $19 million for large employers.
As these workers emerge out of the pandemic, employers will benefit from taking a role in helping them achieve a greater sense of financial well-being and security. In fact, a March 2021 survey found that 81% of employers have seen improvement in their teams since offering financial wellness programs, and 88% say their employees have reported less stress.
Research indicates financial anxiety is linked to a lack of assets, insufficient income, high debt, and low financial literacy, and that financial wellness benefits will be most impactful when they directly address these factors.
Benefits like early wage access, financial education programs, and student loan repayments are already being adopted by large employers across the country and are expected to increase in 2021.
“You have to weigh the cost. What’s more expensive for your business: The price of adding financial wellness to your benefits package or the price of a team that’s struggling with money?” Brian Hamilton, Senior Vice President of SmartDollar, said in a statement. “When you provide a financial wellness benefit that actually works, your employees stop bringing their money baggage through your company’s front door.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lia Tabackman is a freelance journalist, copywriter, and social media strategist based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, CBS 6 News, the Los Angeles Times, and Arlington Magazine, among others.
Image by Shirley Hirst from Pixabay.