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Employers Enhance Well-Being Benefits for a Post-Pandemic Workforce

Average spending per employee for these programs increased to $238 this year

A group of people doing yoga in a field.

Employers are revising their employee well-being programs to address the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic and to focus more on the needs of diverse workforces, new research shows.

Benefits getting a second look include programs that support mental and emotional health, work/life balance, and financial health, according to the 12th Annual Employer-Sponsored Health & Well-Being Survey from Fidelity Investments, a benefits provider, and the nonprofit Business Group on Health. The January 2021 survey received responses from 166 large and midsize U.S. national and multinational companies.

The events of the past year created opportunities for employers "to address the unique challenges created by the pandemic," said Shams Talib, head of Fidelity's workplace consulting division. "As we gradually return to a pre-pandemic work environment, employers will continue to try new and different things" to help employees resolve personal and family challenges.

Noted Ellen Kelsay, president and CEO of Business Group on Health, an association of large employers: "As employers around the globe continue to ramp up their well-being offerings, we will see a healthier and more engaged workforce." She expects businesses "to demonstrate flexibility and support employee needs through leave, hybrid work and other benefits."

Expanding Well-Being Offerings

For 2021, the survey found developments in these areas:

  • Mental health and emotional well-being. Ninety-two percent of respondents expanded their support for programs addressing issues such as stress management, sleep improvement and resiliency, as well as supporting mental health programs for dependent children.
  • Work/life balance. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of employers increased work/life opportunities, with 69 percent adding new leave options or expanding their leave benefits during the pandemic. Many employers also are examining their parental leave policies, including time off for adopting a child.
  • Caregiving. Sixty-four percent enhanced child care support; 55 percent provided new paid time off (PTO) to care for a child or other family member, and 48 percent provided backup child care support.
  • Financial well-being. Eighty-three percent have or will provide programs to support emergency savings, debt management and budgeting, while another 77 percent will offer resources to support key financial decisions such as mortgages, wills and income protection.

Well-Being Budgets

Big companies continue to expand their investment in corporate well-being programs, with the total budget for these programs reaching an average of $6 million in 2021, up from the average budget of $4.9 million reported in 2020. Among large employers (20,000-plus employees) the average budget earmarked for well-being programs increased to $10.5 million.

Average spending per employee increased to $238 in 2021, slightly higher than the $230 per employee in 2020.

While financial incentives continue to play a role in encouraging employees to participate in well-being activities, the percentage of employers offering a financial incentive dropped to 68 percent, down from 78 percent in 2020, the survey found. The median per-employee incentive held steady at $600 in 2021.

DE&I Issues

Of the 80 percent of employers that report diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) as influencing their well-being strategy this year, nearly half (45 percent) designed initiatives specifically for traditionally marginalized employees, while 78 percent used direct employee input, such as from surveys and employee resource groups, to help bolster such efforts.

Almost half (49 percent) indicate that they audit employee benefits and well-being initiatives to assess inclusivity, and another 39 percent have created DE&I standards for vendors and suppliers.

[Related SHRM article: Family-Forming Benefits Serve a Diverse Workforce]

Small Businesses Get on Board

While the Fidelity/Business Group on Health survey focused on larger companies, a survey by HR services and payroll firm Paychex found mental health challenges are affecting productivity, retention and overall business success at small and midsize companies.

The survey was conducted at the end of 2020 among 250 principals (owners, founders, CEOs) and 250 employees at U.S. companies with two to 99 employees.

According to the firm's 2021 State of Mental Health in the Workplace Report, employees at smaller workplaces plan to prioritize well-being support when they look for their next job:

  • 66 percent of employees felt better about their employer after using a well-being benefit.
  • 60 percent said mental health benefits will factor into selection of their next job.

The top benefits employees cited as "very helpful" were:

  • Employee-specific professional development plans.
  • The option to have a flexible schedule.
  • A system for tracking employee progress and goals.
  • Health-maintenance programs.
  • Programs that offer treatment referrals for mental health issues or substance abuse.

Alison Stevens, director of HR services at Paychex, advised HR leaders to "check with employees on their mental health, whether that is through anonymous surveys or one-on-one meetings," and then put plans in place to address challenges employees are facing. They can do so, Stevens said, by offering well-being benefits such as those listed above.

EAPs and Virtual Counseling

A sizable number of smaller employers also plan to provide access to employee assistance programs (EAPs), Paychex found. EAPs refer employees to resources that provide help for mental health challenges, substance abuse, financial planning and work issues, for instance.

The survey showed that:

  • 19 percent of employers with fewer than 100 employees were extremely or very likely to start offering an EAP in 2021.
  • 33 percent of employers at companies with 20 to 49 employees, and 57 percent of employers at companies with 50 to 99 employees, were extremely or very likely to start offering an EAP.

"Over the past year, EAP vendors have streamlined the referral process for counseling benefits, and many employers have increased the number of free counseling sessions for employees and their family members," said Andrea Herron, head of people at health information website WebMD. "EAPs also offer assistance with financial concerns and caregiving—two of the most common sources of stress in employees' lives," she noted.

Herron will be speaking at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas.

The Fidelity/Business Group on Health survey found that 95 percent of large employers now provide access to virtual mental health counseling, or teletherapy, up from 69 percent in 2020.

"Allowing participants to meet with counselors in ways that are most convenient for them—video, text, or via phone—removes a massive barrier to getting care," Herron said. "If your plan doesn't offer these yet, it's time to add" this benefit.

She also recommended free access to mindfulness and meditation programs, providing a stress management course, and offering onsite or virtual yoga or tai chi classes, which, she said, "have proven mental health benefits."

[Related SHRM article: Rethinking Employee Benefits for Permanently Remote Workers]

Getting the Word Out

More than 1 in 5 employees (21 percent) said lack of awareness is the reason for not using offered benefits, Paychex found. To highlight how a particular benefit meets employee needs, Stevens said, HR teams should tell employees why the benefit is important, how to access more information about it and how to enroll.

"Employers need to remind employees about the mental health benefits available to them," advised Kim Buckey, vice president of client services at Birmingham, Ala.-based DirectPath, a benefits education, enrollment and health care transparency firm. "With more employees feeling anxious about returning to the workplace, employers should communicate offerings such as EAPs, access to meditation and well-being apps, or other online resources, as well as reminders of PTO and leave policies."

[Related SHRM article: Mental Health Apps Offer New Ways to Support Employees]

Stress Takes a Toll

Gallup's latest State of the Global Workplace report finds that U.S. and Canadian workers' daily stress levels rose 8 percentage points during the pandemic, with 57 percent of respondents now reporting high stress—far above the global average of 47 percent.

During 2020 and through March 1, 2021, Gallup surveyed approximately 1,000 adults in each country where the study was conducted.

"Well-being is not just a COVID-19-related issue," said Jim Harter, Gallup's chief workplace scientist. "Global worry, stress, sadness and anger have been trending up the past decade."

Even before the pandemic, he added, "the new workforce was asking for a workplace that would improve their overall life. Organizations are in a unique position to improve lives and performance simultaneously."

Leaders "need to recognize the influence of employee well-being and employee engagement on workforce resilience," Gallup reported. "Employees' disengagement creates a drag on productivity, innovation and organizational change."

"Employers are really recognizing the long-term impact of the pandemic on employees' mental well-being," tweeted Julie Stich, vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. "This isn’t something that everybody’s going to bounce back from and be completely fine in the next couple of months or the rest of the year."


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