Pandemic-Era Employee Benefits Are Here to Stay

The Hartford, a leader in property and casualty insurance, group benefits, and mutual funds, shared insights from its 2021 Future of Benefits Study at the Workday Financial Services Industry Summit.

At the onset of the pandemic, employees could no longer take advantage of hallmark workplace perks like dry cleaning and free lunches at the office.

Employees shifted to remote work when offices closed due to health and safety concerns—on top of the disruption already impacting practically every aspect of their lives. And with that, workplace perks and benefits that were once considered important changed dramatically. 

“When we survey employees, they talk about needing more flexibility and more options to help them navigate what has been a very complex time in their lives,” said Jonathan Bennett, head of group benefits at The Hartford, a Workday customer.

Employers are thinking more holistically about the welfare of their employees, including their mental health.

And that shift is gaining importance in retaining talent.

“Having employers who are providing that kind of support really does engender a level of loyalty and commitment,” Bennett said. “Employers certainly want to be that kind of a place to work. They see that as being instrumental in creating the kind of talent and workplace environment that they believe is going to make their company successful as well.” 

The insights come from The Hartford's 2021 Future of Benefits Study, which Bennett discussed at the Financial Services Industry Summit, a Workday digital event.

The study was first conducted in March 2020, right before COVID-19 spread widely in the United States, and again in June 2020 and February 2021. 

The study, which surveyed employers and U.S. workers, revealed the following trends shaping the future of benefits in a post-pandemic landscape:

Employee Benefits Include Mental Health

Employers are thinking more holistically about the welfare of their employees, including their mental health. When workers were facing unprecedented challenges in their personal lives and with their work, employers became more involved in helping their employees manage stress and anxiety. That trend will continue for the foreseeable future, Bennett said.

Think about it: Recovery from a car accident or any other sudden, traumatic event is better with mental support. Likewise, employers are recognizing that they can offer a greater role in the recovery of their employees. 

“By bringing about a benefit program and a support program that allows you to address all sides of recovery, employers will really aid themselves and their employees by returning to work more successfully, more productively, and able to contribute,” Bennett said.

Clearly, mental health support is more than nice to have. It’s essential to keeping the workforce engaged, healthy, and able to perform at their highest level in support of company goals and objectives. In the Future of Benefits Study, 59% of employees said their employer has been more accepting of mental health challenges in the past year.

“I think it gives us an opportunity, not only as a provider of benefits and as an employer in trying to be supportive of the benefit needs of our clients, but also as a society to really engage in this kind of dialogue, to open ourselves to the challenges that many people may face, and to find ways to support them effectively through that,” Bennett said.

“Having employers who are providing that kind of support really does engender a level of loyalty and commitment.”

Jonathan Bennett Head of Group Benefits The Hartford

Renewed Focus on Bedrock Benefits

The fact that the pandemic blurred the line between work and home put a renewed focus on the bedrock benefits, Bennett said. The study found increased enrollment in voluntary products, such as critical illness, hospital indemnity, and accident coverage, Bennett said. Essential benefits shifted toward options that can bring a sense of security in moments of stress and challenges. 

The study also indicated a need to reimagine long-standing policies. Consider leave benefits, such as paid time off or maternity leave. ​In the Future of Benefits Study, 75% of the employers have expanded their paid leave and paid time off benefits beyond state and federal requirements.

The response reflects what has transpired over the course of the pandemic, where the merging of work and home revealed to employers the stress and anxiety often faced by their workforce, Bennett said.

“They're interested in providing more of these benefits, more of these options in ways that help their workforce to be productive, to stay engaged, and to be innovative in the workplace,” he said. “It's really a tremendous trend, and a real opportunity for employers and employees to be partnered more deeply together in ways that we think will provide lasting benefits in the years ahead.”

Digital Tools Critical to Employee Benefits

Employee benefits are now top of mind year-round, not just during annual open enrollment. Bennett said employees are making themselves more aware and informed about their benefits. 

Technology is playing a role in aiding employers in educating their employees about benefits and cost value. And digital tools enable companies to offer greater customization to the unique circumstances of an individual employee or their family. The study found 75% of employers expect to use more online resources as part of their enrollment strategy and benefit programs. 

When using those digital tools, effective communication is critical. The more engaging the communication, Bennett said, the more likely employees will be to interact with that material, understand and truly digest the information, and incorporate it into their decision making.

“Whether they have family with children who are young, grown, perhaps without children, partner, spouse … being able to give employees relevant insights as to how these products and services apply to their circumstance is critical in really helping them to appreciate the value ... and prompting them to take action to protect themselves, to protect their family, and to really avail themselves of the great services that are now being presented by their employers,” Bennett said.

Perks and benefits have long been integral in creating a work environment that could attract and retain the best talent. Post-pandemic, the future of benefits is less about the perks available at the office and more about how employers help address the health and well-being of their employees.

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