Employee Expectations About Benefits Are Changing

Offering physical healthcare isn’t enough anymore; post-pandemic, demand for a holistic approach combining physical, mental and financial well-being is emerging.
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Among the dramatic workplace changes brought on by the pandemic is a shift in what benefits employees expect—and thus what enterprises need to offer to attract and retain talent, according to Andrés Suster, a partner at New York City-based management consulting firm cg42. Suster spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about the impact of employee financial stress, whether free lunches matter anymore and why “change is the consistent theme.”

How will employees’ expectations of benefits change post-pandemic?

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted everyone differently. Employees across different sectors and industries will have different expectations of the way benefits might need to change in the post-pandemic environment—but change is the consistent theme.

For example, frontline workers continue to face persistent physical threats and mental stress and will be more likely to expect access to mental health benefits, in addition to traditional health benefits moving forward. Employees who have been able to work remotely may feel disconnected and burnt out and might expect more wellness offerings. Working parents and caregivers will expect familial benefits that might include schedule flexibility.

There was a wide range of expectations pre-pandemic and there will continue to be a disparity in expectations post-pandemic. Employers will need to remain flexible to meet the changing needs of employees and simultaneously address the diversity of those needs. Generally, though, employees are placing greater value on their overall well-being and are looking for benefits that will help them prepare for the unexpected and protect their physical, mental and financial well-being.

Talk about the value of taking a holistic approach to benefits to meet both the mental and physical needs of employees.

Our definition of holistic well-being must extend beyond physical and mental health to include financial well-being. These three aspects—financial, mental and physical—are interconnected as financial stressors impact both physical and mental health and vice versa. Recent studies have shown that financial health is the top concern among employees right now, with 86 percent of employees stating that finances are a top source of stress for them now and in the future.

Employers should take note, too, because there’s a clear correlation between employee productivity and employees’ physical, mental and financial well-being. In fact, employees who identify as mentally and financially healthy are 37 percent more likely to be productive than those who do not. These offerings can take many forms, from providing access to workout or meditation classes to connecting employees to financial advisors.

Will employees expect businesses to deprioritize tech and wellness benefits and shift to more traditional offerings post-pandemic—or will it be the opposite?

Although benefits were already shifting pre-pandemic, tech and wellness benefits were less common at most organizations before remote work forced employees to reprioritize their needs during the pandemic. The demand for tech benefits was accelerated by the pandemic, and it will continue to accelerate now that employees have become accustomed to tech benefits like flexibility with working remotely or even employers paying for employees’ phone bills and providing them with company laptops and monitors. This expectation isn’t going to go away any time soon, especially as new Covid variants have kept many corporate employees working from home well into 2022.

With the addition of tech and wellness benefits, it can be difficult for executives to dial back on offerings that employees have come to appreciate and there is always the possibility that employees will resent management if benefits are taken away. To continue to succeed, business leaders will need to make tough calls and get rid of benefits that no longer make sense for the employee population while continuing to adjust offerings and programs that do address employee needs. The cuts that businesses make will look different depending on the size and scale of the organization. Benefits cannot be something that are addressed once and then left stagnant for years—they need to be revisited regularly.

What are the benefits that employers should be prioritizing moving forward, including health and wellness offerings?

The core needs of employees haven’t changed and the basics—health insurance, including dental and vision, and retirement programs—are still core to what employees want. That said, the pandemic did increase the demand for childcare, health and wellness perks, elder care, pet insurance, legal insurance and mental health benefits. Plus, with companies slowing return-to-office plans, we expect that demand for those benefits will be strong well into the future.

At the same time, many of the benefits that employers were focused on before aren’t going to be as important. According to Care.com, many employers are abandoning the “nice to have” benefits, including free lunches and commuter benefits, to address the real needs of employees and implement benefits that will positively impact them.

How should executives best handle these shifts in priorities?

All employees are unique, and they each have individual needs that should be addressed. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that it’s important to proactively seek out and listen to those needs. Employers can start to handle the shift in priorities by listening to the various populations of employees within their organization to understand their needs and categorize them. It may be frustrating for executives to hear, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Additionally, employers should also be looking to meet employees where they are and invest in technology solutions that make it easier for them to learn about and use the benefits that are available to them. More often than not, before the pandemic many employees were unaware of all of the benefits that they had available to them at their organization. It’s the responsibility of the employer to make information about benefits easy to find and access to limit confusion and needless frustration. Limiting frustration and meeting people where they are is even more critical now that we’re in the Great Resignation. Benefits aren’t just about keeping current employees happy. Companies must rethink the role benefits can play in attracting and retaining talent too.

Any other take-aways for executives?

As the future of the Covid-19 pandemic and return to office for many workers remains unclear, it’s critical that executives remain flexible and identify new and creative ways to keep employees engaged, productive and committed to the organization. The needs of employees will continue to shift, especially as Covid variants impact return-to-work plans, and employers must work alongside their employees to listen to those new needs and take action to address them. By remaining flexible in this new business environment, businesses will be best positioned for success in the near term.

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