EMPLOYERS SEEK SUPPORT AMID PANDEMIC CHALLENGES
Benefits brokers/consultants bring a valued perspective
By Thomas A. McCoy, CLU
At a recent Guardian Life webinar attended by some 1,500 brokers and employers, employer representatives were asked whom they are looking to for guidance in the wake of the pandemic. More than half responded they would look to their benefits brokers or consultant.
At this “Preparing for the rebound” webinar and several others that Guardian conducted in April and May, employers also were asked to rank the importance of the tasks that lay ahead of them. Two-thirds of them responded that implementing safety measures for customers and employees was their top priority. It was the highest-ranking choice, higher even than the need to retain customers and resume growing business again.
“Before this crisis our clients had more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ mentality,” said Lyle Domenitz, partner of Strategies for Wealth, a New York-based business planning firm, at the Guardian webinar. “Now they’ve learned that it’s great to have advisors to lean on, including their insurance broker, account-ant, attorney, financial advisor, banker and real estate professional.”
One thing a broker can bring to a client is simple observations about what appears to be working for other employers. Maybe one client has figured out a smooth way to handle the rotating employees in and out of the office in shifts so as to limit workers being in close proximity. Could something similar work for another client?
“What employees are going through is a defining moment, … .What do you want them to say about their employer when it’s over?”
Senior Principal, Communications
Another way a broker can be of help, Domenitz pointed out, is by making sure employees are aware of the counseling services that may be available to them under an Employee Assistance Plan (EAP). Industry research indicates a lack of understanding about access to EAPs and other mental wellness services.
Employers will be making difficult decisions and implementing new policies on matters that would have been irrelevant six months ago: arranging for more employees to work at home, modifying office space, mandating smaller meetings, carrying out extra cleaning measures, monitoring employees’ health, and making decisions on personal contact with customers. Every week a new challenge can emerge.
Employee anxiety is likely to be high. Yet, data from MetLife shows that it is possible for employers to provide the necessary protection and reassurance employees need in order to be productive and engaged.
MetLife was preparing to publish its annual Employee Benefit Trends Study (EBTS), which is based on data from 2,650 full-time employees and 2,501 employers, early this year. When the pandemic hit, the study was updated by resurveying employees. The new data showed a 10-percentage point jump in employees saying they felt valued and appreciated by their employer when working (from 56% pre-pandemic to 66% in April).
The updated study asked employees if their employers were providing programs or benefits to support their well-being. Of those who said they were getting that support, 87% said they felt productive (vs. 74%who said they weren’t getting support); 81% felt engaged (67% for those who felt unsupported); and 80% felt successful (61% for those who felt unsupported).
“In a time of crisis, employees are looking for clear, concise communication from their employer,” Domenitz said. “You can’t communicate too much. The communication needs to be two-way,” he stressed. “Feedback from employees is huge. You should request it.”
Paola Guyer, Mercer’s senior principal of communications, echoed this advice to employers, speaking at a Mercer webinar. “What employees are going through is a defining moment in their career and life journey,” she said. “How employers respond will have a lasting impact on employee productivity and commitment. What do you want them to say about their employer when it’s over?
“Communicate early and often to reassure them and clarify company policies,” Guyer counseled employers. “Be transparent. It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers.”
Working from home
Individual employees are dealing with different stressors, Domenitz pointed out. “One size definitely does not fit all. And the stress that employees are feeling at home during the pandemic can be even greater than at a workplace.”
The work-from-home experience of the last few months has been a real eye-opener for both employers and employees. It could prove to be the most lasting effect of the pandemic. Employers have seen it work, and more now will likely consider it to be a viable ongoing strategy after health concerns subside.
Some of the stress employees feel in working from home may be reduced as children are able to return to school, but it won’t end the stress. The lines between work and personal life were blurring long before the pandemic. Working from home can blur those lines further. Technology facilitates so much.
In MetLife’s Employee Benefit Trends Study (pre-COVID-19), results show that 40% of employees and 60% of employers recognize that maintaining work-life balance is a problem. It also found that 87% of employees are interested in working for an organization that has policies to place boundaries on their working hours.
Financial stress, amplified by the pandemic, also weighs heavily on many employees, and employers are recognizing the need to deal with it. Between 2019 and 2020, offering financial wellness plans went from 30% to 40%, according to the EBTS.
“In 2008-2009 … employees started paying more attention to what they were paying for. We think that will happen again this year.”
The study shows that employees respond favorably to employers that offer such programs. Even before the pandemic, 76% of employees who were offered financial wellness programs reported being satisfied with their benefits, compared to 59% who were not offered financial wellness programs.
At the Mercer webinar, Mark Solie, a principal in communications at Mercer, said the pandemic has caused employees to think differently about their benefits program. “Affordability will be top of mind for employees. They will want to be educated on how to make good, economical decisions.
“If you look back to the last significant economic downturn in 2008-2009, employers reduced their healthcare spending and shifted more of those costs to employees. Employees started paying more attention to what they were paying for. We think that will happen again this year,” Solie said.
He thinks employees will pay more attention to their total portfolio of benefits. “There could be greater interest in voluntary benefits, including hospital indemnity, critical illness and buying up disability and life insurance limits.
“Also, make sure you highlight EAPs, mental and behavioral health programs and telemedicine services,” Solie said. “These may be services they have been utilizing in the last few months.”
He pointed out that another effect of the pandemic has been that employees have become more comfortable using technology. “Even the least digitally savvy have gotten more used to it by using their home devices for new tasks such as ordering groceries and helping kids with schoolwork online and Zoom meetings. This may have implications for open enrollment,” he said, giving employers a reason to consider more digital communication strategies.
The webinars sponsored by Guardian and Mercer included discussion of a wide range of health protection procedures for employers to consider. Among them: face mask regulations, temperature checks, limits to numbers of people close together, and requiring people to clean off their desks at the end of the day. As unheard of as these measures were six months ago, Guardian’s polling of employers shows that employers now are taking them seriously.
The employee benefits plan can be an anchor of stability during this period of upheaval. Benefits brokers and consultants can provide actionable information and counsel that employers and employees need.
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Thomas A. McCoy, CLU, is an Indiana-based freelance insurance writer.