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Employers Think They're Providing Great Benefits. Employees Disagree. What's the Problem?

Aflac CHRO talks increasing benefits costs, financial stress and more

A tall building lit up at night in a city.

​As a myriad of challenges plague employees—from financial stress to mental health issues—it's no wonder workers are looking for more help from their employers.

Many employers have answered the call by rolling out or enhancing their benefits offerings. Or, at least, so they think.

According to a recent Aflac report, there is a 22 percentage-point gap between employers' perceptions of employee satisfaction with benefits and employees' self-reported satisfaction. That gap widened significantly last year, up from a 14 percentage-point difference in 2021, according to the insurance provider, which surveyed some 1,200 employers and 2,001 employees for its 2022-2023 Aflac WorkForces Report.

"Employers think they're providing wonderful benefits, and employees tend to disagree," said Matthew Owenby, chief human resources officer at Aflac. "Employers believe that their benefits are fairly priced, and employees tend to disagree. Employers believe that they're doing a great job of communicating the value proposition of their benefits. And more and more this year, employees disagree.

Aflac CHRO Matthew Owenby

"What always surprises me is that employers are not getting very much better at this," he said.

So what's the issue? High health care costs, wellness challenges and a lack of communication are partly to blame.

SHRM Online recently talked with Owenby about the disconnect, why the benefits landscape is murky, his strategy for his own employees and what he thinks employers need to do.

SHRM Online: What do you think is the reason behind this disconnect in benefits satisfaction? Why isn't this getting better?

Owenby: For some employers, it's the reality that the cost of insurance and providing health care benefits for their employees is going up. I can see the inclination not to call that out, frankly, and not to say, "We're going to pass along higher deductibles," which is what we're seeing this year, or "We're going to pass along more options that are going to be more expensive for you." Perhaps some employers don't want to call attention to that. But if you're trying to control the expenses of a benefits program, and 80 percent of your expense is coming from the management of your dependents as well as your employees, you probably want to have a conversation with them and maybe say, "Hey, look, the benefits are going up in cost, so here are some things you can do from a wellness perspective, and here are some things you can do to help us keep the overall cost of the plan down."

SHRM Online: How do you address this as an HR leader for your employees?

Owenby: At Aflac, we spend a lot of time talking to our employees about benefits, and not just pre- annual enrollment. We talk about not only the fact that costs are going up, but here are ways to help costs be controlled by the participants, especially their dependents.

That's important, because the survey continues to tell us that there's a high level of financial stress for employees, and the last thing they want to hear is, "Oh, by the way, it's going to be more expensive to have benefits at work." Combine that with the higher levels of mental health issues that have come out of the pandemic, and we have a murky environment from a benefits perspective. It's all really connected to, I think, better communication, more transparency. More often, employers that are waiting for that annual enrollment cycle to communicate really are not doing themselves or the plan participants justice.

SHRM Online: We hear so often how employers wait to talk about benefits until open enrollment, which seems like a mistake—and even more so in this environment, like you said. Communication around benefits and help needs to happen year-round.

Owenby: It does, particularly as it gets more expensive. Also, we find in this survey that slightly over half of American workers are experiencing high levels of burnout. What does that have to do with benefits and benefits cost? Well, it's all connected. So employees that are experiencing burnout, anxiety, financial concerns—there is a real opportunity to notice that as an employer and use it as an opportunity to connect to the resources that the corporation is offering.

It cannot be a once-a-year conversation. I recognize that I've got a large HR organization, we have a very large corporation, fairly sophisticated, so it's very easy for me to say, "Well, you need to communicate better." But really all employers that are offering benefits—whether they're very, very large or very, very small—can spend the time, at least quarterly, talking about the importance of their own wellness and health. And it doesn't have to just be in the context of annual enrollment.

SHRM Online: Certainly there are a lot of wellness and health concerns plaguing workers right now. Can you explain where we're at?

Owenby: When it comes to mental wellness, we are seeing dramatic increases in anxiety and depression within our own plan. There's probably a variety of reasons for that—societal upset is simply one of them. And year after year in the survey, we see that more and more employees are struggling financially. If you're struggling financially, every day is pretty bad for you. You wake up every day to financial anxiety, and then you get societal anxiety. Your days are pretty rough, and so employers have an obligation to help. Even if they're not providing specific benefits for those things, they can provide educational and connection awareness to facilities that will do that on people's behalf.

There's a direct correlation between employee engagement, satisfaction and capability and their overall mental wellness. And we're seeing a lot of really concerning numbers from that perspective.

One of the things we do here is bring in financial advisors to provide educational support for our employees at all levels—stuff from how you set a budget, how you balance your checkbook, things, unfortunately, that probably are not being taught in traditional education. A lot of employees don't know the basics of financial understanding. We can do a better job helping employees understand the advantage of having a 401(k), putting money away or planning for taxes. Because we also know financial anxiety has a huge impact on productivity.

SHRM Online: What is driving your benefits strategy for your employees now? What have you been doing differently?

Owenby: It's really about expanding what we're currently doing. We offer onsite medical care that allows us to take care of our employees in a much more dynamic way, and it leads us to much better health outcomes. With more regular care, we can prevent a cold from becoming bronchitis. We've even prevented heart attacks, with employees who are at work and say, "I'm not feeling great," and they can swing by the [onsite] clinic and quickly meet with a doctor.

What we've done recently is bring mental health therapists on site, so that's an expansion of that health care element. We started seeing a pretty big increase in the usage of mental health professionals throughout the pandemic, and as we started bringing people back [into the office], it was just a natural complement to what we're doing already.

I want to expand things in the future and really give people an opportunity to engage with a corporation in a way that's pretty unusual.

SHRM Online: What advice do you have for other HR leaders?

The one thing I would tell you is, a lot of times people are not really comfortable talking about mental health issues. They're also not comfortable talking about their financial health problems. But we need to make it OK for employees to talk to their employers about their wellness issues.

HR people need to make it OK to talk about these things. They don't have to be health care and wellness professionals. But just like any other problem that an employee has, they can provide people with outlets to speak, even if they're not providing them as an employer. The least you can do is help somebody who's struggling from a mental health perspective because these issues, like any other healthcare issue, they don't get better on their own typically.

We have to make it OK to talk about things that historically most HR people were uncomfortable with. But it's a part of the workplace. It's a part of the workforce. We can't ignore it.


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