COMMUNICATING BENEFITS CHOICES
TO A CHANGING WORKFORCE
The challenges of off-site workers and other unfinished business
By Thomas A. McCoy, CLU
In a job market where employers struggle to attract employees, and where workers are increasingly concerned about their financial wellness, the importance of a strong benefits program has never been greater. That’s good news for brokers who help guide their clients’ benefits decisions.
Eastbridge Consulting Group recently surveyed more than 1,000 employers ranging in size from 10 to more than 10,000 employees and found that 62% of them planned to add or change an employee benefit in the next 12 to 18 months. Two years ago, that number was 44%.
Nick Rockwell, Eastbridge president, said, “Our research shows that a past trend of employers cutting back on employee benefits to control costs has changed. Only a handful of employers, 6%, say they plan to drop one or more benefits completely, less than half the number in our 2020 survey. More than half of the employers now say they plan to add a new benefit, either employer-paid, partially-employer-paid or voluntary.”
Two-thirds of employers surveyed said they now offer at least one voluntary benefit to their employees, up from 60% two years ago. Eastbridge noted that the increase is driven primarily by smaller employers offering voluntary coverage.
The Guardian Benefits Value IndexSM (BVI), used to measures employee sentiment about how much they value their benefits, is the highest it has been in the last decade. According to Guardian Life’s 2022 Workplace Benefits Study, an employer’s benefits program ranks third (behind compensation and enjoying the work) as a reason for employees to stay at their current jobs.
Some of today’s increasing benefits opportunities are also sources of significant challenges. Consider, for one, the needs of remote workers. Their numbers have swelled since the pandemic, and they often are highly sought-after professional employees. Yet, employers are still figuring out how to communicate their benefits effectively to employees who want to work remotely.
MetLife’s open enrollment survey, an independent analysis of some 1,000 employees conducted in August, found that 61% of remote employees consider their employer’s benefits to be a significant part of what is keeping them at their company. For work-from-home caregivers with children under 18, the number rises to 72%.
Yet, 57% of the remote workers in MetLife’s study said they need more information to make the right benefits choices, compared to 47% of hybrid and on-site workers. Heading into this year’s open enrollment, the MetLife survey found that fully-remote workers are twice as likely as hybrid employees or on-site workers to say they enrolled in the wrong benefits last year.
“Working from home can mean increased isolation and less opportunity for organic conversations about benefits and their usefulness,” says Jenn Kischell, MetLife’s vice president of workforce engagement. “A potential lack of customized benefits communication to this remote cohort may be leading to increased rates of confusion and stress.”
More than half of the remote workers interviewed for MetLife’s study (55%) said they are highly anxious about their finances (versus 46% of hybrid and on-site workers). Almost two-thirds of the remote workers (65%) said that a better understanding of open enrollment would make them feel more financially secure.
Employers will need to learn how to manage the benefits needs of remote workers in the years ahead because the off-site work model has become firmly entrenched, and appears to be working. The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s (EBRI) 2022 Workplace Wellness Survey, conducted through online interviews of 1,518 workers, found that just over half (51%) are working from home or teleworking all (24%) or some (26%) of the time.
According to the EBRI survey, at least seven in 10 employees say working from home has had a positive impact on their workplace well-being (78%); family/household dynamics (76%); physical well-being (74%); and financial well-being (71%).
“Working from home can mean increased isolation and less opportunity for organic conversations about benefits and their usefulness
Vice President, Workforce Engagement
Guardian’s study produced similar results. It found that 60% of employees want to work remotely in some capacity. Employees who can work remotely are two-thirds more likely to report high overall well-being. Conversely, four in 10 employees say they have left their jobs, or are considering leaving, due to inflexible hours or inability to work remotely. For Gen Z, the number rises to more than half.
A summary report from Guardian’s study states, “Before the pandemic, remote work and flexible schedules had been gaining momentum among employers, but mostly as perks granted only occasionally or on a small scale.” The pandemic forced employers to embrace off-site work on a larger scale and to shake off concerns that it would hurt productivity and workplace culture, the report notes.
Compared to the early days of the pandemic, when employers were forced to quickly adjust to off-site work arrangements, today’s remote worker challenges may seem minor. “The technology available to make hybrid work a possibility has been around for some time,” said Dean Del Vecchio, CIO and chief of operations at Guardian. “Employees have rapidly adopted communication and collaboration technologies in a way that is now a fundamental expectation of their workday.”
According to Guardian’s study, 68% of employees prefer to enroll in benefits via a digital method, and 73% of employees reported doing so.
“Most companies offer a range of enrollment resources that cater to both on-site and virtual employees,” Kischell says, “including websites, mobile apps and one-on-one consultations with benefits enrollment representatives. Employers can and should encourage their employees to talk—even virtually—to their managers or human resources teams about what their company offers.”
MetLife offers a Make Your Match™ online tool that provides plan participants with personalized benefits suggestions based on personal information they provide. “Understanding how to maximize the value of their benefits as they relate to their own personal situations is critical, especially since employees’ financial anxieties may only worsen as economic conditions continue to shift,” Kischell says.
“However, employers should keep in mind that a lot of employees are turning to their devices—phones, tablets, computers—for education about their benefits. For example, one in three Gen Z employees would prefer to be able to ask questions and resolve issues through multiple channels.”
Kischell stresses the importance of looking beyond benefits to the entire employee experience for remote workers. “Remote workers connect with colleagues differently and experience the company culture differently than on-site workers. There are opportunities to create new connection points for remote workers to ensure they are holistically well,” she states.
“That could mean creating dedicated resource groups for the remote workforce to connect virtually. Or it could be encouraging managers and colleagues to engage with remote colleagues beyond the work at hand.”
One area of concern—and opportunity—for benefits planners is supporting the mental health of employees, whether they work remotely or onsite. Guardian’s study found a strong correlation between employee loyalty to their employer and their perceived level of mental health support.
In order to serve the unique mental health needs of remote workers, Kischell says, “Employers should look to tools
virtually.” One way is by utilizing Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) for mental health and counseling services. “With many EAPs available over the phone, remote workers can access and experience this benefit in the same way as their on-site counterparts.
“Some EAPs have enhanced their services to include legal support, credit counseling and grief counseling,” she notes.
Employers will be taking a hard look at the support they provide for their workers’ mental health. In Guardian’s study, 70% of employers said they believe they address employees’ emotional health “extremely well,” while fewer than 50% of employees rated their company’s mental health benefits as “very good” or “excellent.” Employers still have work to do.
In the almost-three years since the COVID-19 outbreak, the workplace has undergone some dramatic changes. They include the acceptance of the remote work model and the realization of the need for stronger mental health support for employees. In both cases, benefits brokers have significant opportunities to help guide their clients’ decision-making.
Thomas A. McCoy, CLU, is an Indiana-based freelance insurance writer.