What Employees Really Think of Benefits

by | Apr 28, 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic irrevocably changed the world of work. For employers, it meant re-evaluating existing business models and placing a renewed focus on their workforce. For employees, it meant adapting to new ways of working while juggling social responsibilities. For support, they turned to benefits packages that address these challenges.

To understand how the national health crisis influenced the way employees view and use their benefits today, HealthJoy surveyed 1,021 consumers across the United States in February and March 2021. Our Employee Benefits Insights Survey revealed that workers don’t fully grasp their benefits, there’s a growing desire for more flexible work policies, and that wishlist perks will inevitably play a crucial role in your HR department’s talent recruitment and retention efforts.

In a year marred by change and challenge, employees found renewed clarity around what they want and need most, now and in the future.

Knowledge Gaps

How you tailor your benefits packages may matter more than ever. Our recent survey uncovered that 56% of employees agreed (only fully 7% disagreed) that the pandemic caused them to place greater emphasis on their employee benefits. And benefits are driving retention. Forty-seven percent of employees told us their benefits contribute to their happiness at work.

Still, we know when it comes to putting benefits to use, employees struggle. While 92% of employees say they understand their benefits somewhat well, 40% reported delaying healthcare services or procedures because they didn’t know what was covered by insurance. In this new world, benefits might be more important than ever, but employees aren’t fully grasping them.

a pie chart showing how the pandemic changed employee attitudes about their benefits

The knowledge gap can be attributed to any number of factors, from limiting benefits education efforts to open enrollment to a communication strategy that’s misaligned with employee preferences. The bottom line is that, when employees need care, they don’t know how to use their benefits. Beyond the negative health consequences of delayed care, this behavior could impact employee benefits satisfaction. Providing health benefits without the support to use them sets employees up, at best, for a frustrating benefits experience. Benefits teams considering 2021 plans should carefully evaluate their plan offerings to make sure they’re meeting the navigation and support needs of their people.

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What Employees Want: Remote Work.

Our Employee Benefits Insights Survey found that across all age groups, 57% of respondents want the ability to work from anywhere. The result isn’t shocking, given how remote work has always been popular among employees. But what started as a perk has quickly evolved into the norm for most businesses.

While the advantages of a remote work policy are well known to employees, there are plenty of often-overlooked reasons why a flexible work environment can bring value to your company. They include:

  • Better output. Gartner’s 2020 ReimagineHR Employee Survey revealed that in typical organizations where employees work the standard 40-hour schedule in an office, 36% of employees were considered high performers. However, when organizations shifted from the traditional environment to a flexible one — where employees have some choice over where, when, and how much they work — 55% of employees were high performers.
  • Healthier workforce. Allowing employees to work remotely even part of the time can also cut down on the need for them to take sick days. By being at home, they’re more likely to do some work (if they’re able) without exposing their colleagues to an illness. Controlling the risk of exposure became especially important during a global health crisis.
  • Less overhead. One study estimates that the average employer can save approximately $11,000 for one remote half-time worker each year. The savings result from higher productivity rates, lower real estate costs, reduced absenteeism and turnover, and disaster preparedness.
  • Gaining the competitive edge. Remote work removes the geographic boundaries that can limit your talent recruitment. According to LinkedIn, remote jobs result in over 20% more geographical diversity among applicants. As an employer, that means you gain access to a broader and more diverse talent pool and an opportunity to build an inclusive workforce.

What Employees Want: Professional Development.

With employees placing more emphasis on their benefits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it makes sense that one of the most popular noninsurance benefits (48% across all age groups) is full tuition reimbursement for professional development.

Today’s digital work environments have created an opportunity for employers to offer additional value to their people by bringing upskilling and digital courses to the workplace. And where access exists, employees are keen to reskill as needed. In addition to empowering your employees, professional development can:

  • Keep employees engaged. People want to increase their productivity as well as employability. Workers today want to spend their time learning new skills and the freedom to choose what they learn. In a global study by PwC, 33% of those surveyed said they were willing to accept smaller pay bumps if their employer provided them with such benefits. To employees, it’s not just about supplemental training. When employers show a vested interest in their employees’ career paths and growth, they’re likely to find a more engaged workforce along with improved retention rates and morale.
  • Cultivate a more inclusive workplace. A different study found that younger people are twice as likely as older people to get opportunities to improve skills, and people in cities are 1.5 times as likely as people in towns. If that trend continues, employers risk further contributing to the digital divide. By encouraging your HR team to consult with employees about their developmental needs, you can effectively address skill gaps and still gauge what kind of programs might work best for your team.
  • Avoid turnover. One of the many lessons we learned in 2020 is that the digital revolution requires a skills revolution. Providing employees with professional development opportunities lets them know you care about their interests and career objectives. It enables them to grow their skills, exposes them to new experiences, and builds enthusiasm — all of which can also inspire loyalty.

Merely providing upskilling, reskilling, and training programs only goes so far. Employers should reconsider a critical component of employee development to enable a culture of continual learning: Dedicated Paid Time Off.

employee benefits insights report download image

What Employees Want: Unlimited Paid Time Off (PTO).

Put simply — unlimited paid time off (PTO) as a benefit is neither new nor shocking. When asked to choose the three benefits they would find the most valuable, 52% of respondents ranked unlimited PTO high on their benefits wishlist, along with remote work and tuition reimbursement for professional development.

If offering the benefit makes your HR department nervous, it shouldn’t. Here’s why.

  • It’s important. Having unlimited time off isn’t just about taking extended vacations. Having extra PTO gives employees a sense of control over their lives — where they get to decide when and how to spend their time. Whether it’s for professional development or taking time to volunteer for a cause of their choice, an unlimited plan can help employees achieve a better work-life balance.
  • It costs less. According to a 2018 study by Namely, employees with unlimited vacation plans took an average of only 13 days off per year. In contrast, employees with traditional plans took an average of 15 days. Furthermore, depending on which state and how your unlimited PTO policy is structured, your company could avoid paying for unused days because it can be challenging to define how many days have indeed been “accrued.”
  • It attracts talent. Looking to attract top talent? Consider how an unlimited PTO policy can help your company stand out. Beyond the “unlimited” aspect, the popular benefit offers a level of flexibility and autonomy people crave, especially against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also signals your company’s willingness to adopt modern policies and prioritize employee satisfaction.

What’s Ahead for HR Leaders

As we transition to a post-pandemic era, it’s clear that employees don’t want more of the same. They want flexibility, to feel valued, and to explore the limits of their potential.

For HR leaders, recruiting and retaining top talent means curating a competitive benefits package that looks beyond compensation and health insurance, and focuses instead on their employees’ total well-being, both inside and outside of work.

What that might look like will depend on the employer and the needs of its workforce, but the cultural shift to a more holistic approach creates a compelling case for attracting and retaining talented employees.

The nature of work is changing. Why should employee benefit plans stay the same?

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