COVID cravings: Employees want stability, emphasis on well-being

Recent insurance industry reports highlight an expectation among employees that their employers will provide some certainty during highly uncertain times.
Feature Employee Benefits Trends Panel

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the cloud of uncertainty that’s been cast over just about every aspect of our lives — both personal and professional — since the spread of the virus took hold in early spring.

Even as workers have adjusted to an idea of a “new normal,” baked into that tenuous concept is an old maxim: expect the unexpected. Of course, the thing we yearn for most of all during times of upheaval and uncertainty is something solid to lean on.

Two recent reports published during the pandemic reflect the desire among professionals for stability in their benefits packages. Now more than ever, the reports conclude, employers would be wise to think twice before making any changes to their employee benefits plans.

M3 Insurance recently released its 2020 Health Care Trend Report. This annual publication highlights costs and plan designs for employer-sponsored health insurance throughout the state of Wisconsin. The report contains data collected from M3 clients across the spectrum of employer sizes, regional markets, and sectors.

In July, M3 employee benefit clients had an opportunity to participate in a brief survey to provide a snapshot of their approach to their employee plans amidst the pandemic. Most employers currently view their benefits as being at or above those available in the market. Sixty-two percent view their plans as either far exceeding the market (6%) or exceeding the market (56%).

Thirty-four percent view their plans as competitive with the market, whereas only 4% view their plans as below market levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many organizations to be more mindful of their expenses, notes the M3 report. However, a majority of clients responding to M3’s survey said they want stability from their benefit offerings. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said they do not anticipate making plan changes, 4% do anticipate making changes, and the remaining 28% are unsure at this point.

When asked about what is more of a priority for their organization, respondents answered at an exact 50–50 split between “retaining the quality of benefits” and “managing the cost of benefits.”

If put into a situation requiring cost savings, employers reported their preferred approaches include:

  • 38% would review the options on the market;
  • 23% would consider employee cost sharing;
  • 5% would look at narrowing their provider networks;
  • 4% would look at alternative funding models; and
  • 30% indicated uncertainty or a preference for other methods.

Finally, when asked to anticipate the quality of their benefits one year from now, employers’ responses indicated a desire for stability. Seventy-nine percent of employers indicated that they anticipate their benefits being about the same, 18% foresee their employee plans being more valuable, and 4% predict their plans will be less valuable.

Ultimately, the M3 report concludes, we are in moment of uncertainty, but understanding the market and the ramifications of the pandemic can help employers make the right decisions for the unique needs of their organizations.

A separate study published this spring, in the early days of the pandemic, backs up M3’s findings and takes the discussion a step further by highlighting the kinds of additional benefits professionals now expect their employers to provide.

According to MetLife’s 18th annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study (EBTS), 74% of U.S. employees are concerned about at least one aspect of their well-being as a result of the virus.

More than half (52%) of employees are most concerned with their financial health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees are more concerned about their finances than any other aspect of their well-being, including physical (44%), mental (44%), and social health (44%).

The study, fielded among U.S. employees with full-time positions, measured the impact COVID-19 is having on employees’ financial well-being, revealing that three in 10 (29%) now earn less as a result of the virus. Meanwhile, nearly four in 10 (38%) say their employment status has been directly impacted by the pandemic, and an additional 36% expect to be impacted in the future.

“The coronavirus is clearly contributing to employees’ overall stress, especially as it relates to their financial well-being,” says Todd Katz, executive vice president, Group Benefits, for MetLife. “It should come as no surprise that this is particularly true among those with incomes below $50,000, and those in health care. Across industries, employers have an opportunity to be a source of support for employees facing unprecedented challenges by offering tools and resources to address their immediate concerns.”

A holistic model of well-being, and a mix of programs and benefits to support it, can help employees and employers navigate the stresses of the pandemic and manage successfully through to recovery.

Companies that address the holistic needs of their employees can help them feel more protected and cared for, which in turn improves productivity, engagement, and reduces stress and burnout. In this way, companies that support their employees holistically are better positioned to meet the evolving challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and support both employee and business performance.

An analysis of pre-COVID-19 data from late 2019, compared to data from April 2020, shows that employees are now more likely to believe their employers have a responsibility to address their health and well-being (73% pre-COVID-19 vs. 80% during COVID-19), particularly when it comes to their financial well-being (40% pre-COVID-19 vs. 47% during COVID-19). They point to employer-offered benefits and programs as a crucial way to ease their stress and improve their well-being both now and in the future.

According to the study, 41% of employees feel their employer is not currently offering benefits or programs that help support or improve their well-being during this challenging time, while 77% say there are benefits or programs that, if offered by their employer, would ease their stress and improve their well-being.

To support their workforce during this time, employers should consider a holistic approach to overall well-being. Employees say being offered flexible work hours is a top action their employers can take to help alleviate their stress and increase their well-being. In terms of benefits, employees say mental wellness programs (such as an Employee Assistance Program), life insurance, and insurance benefits that offer lump sum or cash payments, such as hospital indemnity or critical illness insurance, would help to ease their stress, if offered by their employer.

The COVID-19 pandemic has required employers to show heightened support for their employees, and those who do are seen more favorably, the study found. Respondents who felt their employers are “doing enough” or going “above and beyond expectations” related to support during the pandemic feel more holistically well than those who say their employers have not done anything nor indicate any plans to start (58% vs. 31 %), as well as more productive, engaged, valued, and appreciated.

“Now more than ever, it’s critical to understand employees’ needs,” says Katz. “In this time of crisis and beyond, providing a mix of benefits and programs can help mitigate stress, improve employees’ holistic well-being, and support them when they need it most, which in turn can help bolster engagement and loyalty from the workforce.”

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