COVID-19 is changing how employees view their benefits

Although the coronavirus pandemic has put employee benefits in a new spotlight, the crisis also has caused a drop in how employees perceive the value of their offerings and their trust in their company to make the best benefits decisions, a new analysis finds.

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Research out today from The Hartford–which polled U.S. workers and human resources and benefits decision-makers in early March, just before the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., and again in mid-June–finds that:

  • 73% of employees now say they value the insurance benefits their company offers them, down from 80% three months earlier.
  • The percentage of employees who say they trust their company is making the best decisions about the benefits available dropped six percentage points, from 61% in wave one of the study to 55% in wave two.
  • And when asked to rate their organization’s overall benefits package compared with what other employers are offering in their marketplace, only 44% now rate their benefits as above average, compared to 56% in wave one.

Jonathan Bennett, head of group benefits at The Hartford, says the crisis is shining a light on gaps in benefit offerings, especially during a time when employees are most looking for support.

“I think the aperture that everyone has on their benefits has widened,” he says. “As employees begin to look at the range of issues they’re having to deal with and wondering about what benefit options might have helped them through the circumstance … I think it’s opening up to all of them, to different ideas and ways they could have been better prepared. Employees are saying, ‘I’m not sure my employer perhaps had enough information to really understand the scope of all the things that could possibly come to pass.’”

Related: Is COVID-19 a turning point for workplace mental health?

The good news is that employers are making progress on and looking for benefit additions to better support employees, he says. The Hartford’s survey, for example, found that COVID-19 is driving significantly more employers to be interested in benefits including paid time off (31% to 52% from wave one to wave two of the study); employee assistance programs (38% to 56%), hospital indemnity insurance (34% to 48%), behavioral/mental health services (42% to 51%) and wellness benefits (42% to 51%). Meanwhile, it’s also resulting in more employers taking responsibility for ensuring that their employees understand the benefits that are offered by their company.

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“Nothing does better to crystalize issues than a crisis,” Bennett says. “[Employers] are evaluating their benefits packages from a much broader purview than they have before and realizing there are gaps.”

A handful of employers have reevaluated their benefits since the start of the pandemic. Many companies, including Amazon, Target and Kroger, are offering extra paid time off for those who are sick or self-quarantined, while Ally Financial, CVS Health, Target and others are offering employees childcare support and caregiving leave to help family members who are sick with the virus. Ally Financial, Facebook, Kroger and JPMorgan Chase handed out bonuses to help alleviate some financial stress faced by employees and help with incremental costs from working at home. Meanwhile, Twitter, Sun Life U.S. and John Hancock rolled out virtual camps to help their parent population, and Starbucks partnered with provider Lyra Health last month to add mental health sessions for its employees.

“Nothing does better to crystalize issues than a crisis.” Jonathan Bennett, The Hartford

Previous research from consulting firm Willis Towers Watson also found that nearly half of the 817 employers it surveyed (47%) are enhancing healthcare benefits, 45% are broadening wellbeing programs and 33% plan to make changes to paid time off or vacation programs.

Related: Here’s how employers are changing benefits due to COVID-19

But the Hartford data–as well as mounting employee stress over a variety of issues–makes it clear there is more work to be done.

Bennett says that in addition to adding and expanding benefit offerings, it is key for employers to communicate and remind employees about available resources. That’s an especially important lesson in preparation for open enrollment season this fall.

“Communication is crucial,” he says. “HR departments need to be engaging their workforce. A moment like this reveals things that a lot of people haven’t thought about or considered but now reveals what needs to be done.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.