Kathryn Mayer: Top 5 benefit trends of 2019

I’ve been covering employee benefits for the better part of a decade, but I have to say that things have never seemed more interesting than they do right now. A decade ago, we were in the midst of the Great Recession, and generous perks weren’t necessary as employers had their pick of candidates. Now, in an employee-driven market, there’s a slew of interesting and new benefit offerings (and thank goodness, because it makes my job more interesting!).

A host of employers have made additions to their benefits packages this year–from boosting paid parental-leave programs and other family-friendly perks to rolling out student-loan benefits. As we approach the end of the year, now is a good time to reflect on some of the biggest benefit trends of the year–and see how those might continue to shape the industry in 2020.

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Financial wellness. Employers turning to financial programs and initiatives to help employees achieve financial security is finally hitting the big time. In fact, more than twice as many companies offer workplace financial-wellness programs to employees today compared to four years ago, according to recent research from Bank of America. Just over half of employers (53%) now offer programs, compared to 24% that did so in 2015, according to the company’s report, which is based on a nationwide survey of 800 employers and 1,000 employees.

It’s an important and encouraging step, especially as we hear more depressing statistics (like that 40% of Americans would struggle to come up with even $400 to pay for an unexpected bill, according to the Federal Reserve) and employers witness the toll that financial stress is having on their employees’ personal and professional lives. Employers that can help their employees with this, through automatic savings programs, budgeting tools and other money-management efforts, are not only making a wise impact on their employees, but for themselves as well.

Paid parental leave. Scores of companies this year–among them, the J.M. Smucker Company, Hilton, The Washington Post and Hannaford Supermarkets–have boosted or rolled out paid parental-leave programs for employees, especially as a hot job market makes it more imperative than ever. Why is this important? Because the U.S. is the only developed country that does not mandate paid maternity leave, leaving it up to employers to make meaningful changes for employees. Without paid parental leave, employees often use unpaid time off to take care of a new child, and many struggle with the decision to return to their employer.

Despite an increase in the percentage of employers offering paid time-off policies for new parents, still only 27% do, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, showing a lot opportunity for other companies to follow suit.

More personalization and digitalization. You can’t talk to many HR experts without hearing the term “employee experience.” And that certainly applies to benefits. A growing number of employers are tailoring voluntary benefits and healthcare options to their employees as individuals. Generations are taken into account, as are preferences on how benefits information is delivered. It’s a way to engage employees and make sure they are getting the most valuable benefits that fit their needs. And technology–in the form of apps, enrollment sites and so on–is helping deliver these personalized options.

Student-loan assistance. This is still a relatively new and rare perk, but it’s one that saw enough movement in the past year to make it noticeable. Employees are drowning in student debt to the tune of $1.5 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve, and smart employers are realizing it’s in their best interest to help. The percentage of employers offering a student-debt benefit doubled in the past year, jumping to 4% from 8%, according to SHRM. Employers including Sotheby’s, the Hartford and Montefiore St. Luke’s Cornwall started offering student-debt-repayment assistance this year. Others, including Fiat Chrysler, rolled out a student-loan-refinancing benefit that allows employees to replace existing loans with a new loan at a lower interest rate. Student-loan benefits have been one of the hottest trends of the year, but there is lots of room for growth.

Employers taking healthcare into their own hands. Perhaps one of the most important trends of the last year has been employers taking charge of healthcare. No shock here, but healthcare costs are growing each year–annual family premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance grew 5% to average $20,576 this year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation–and have reached unsustainable levels. As a result, more employers are stepping up to address the problem, realizing that employees who are dealing with stress over the high cost of care are likely to be less productive at work.

From virtual care and tech solutions to centers of excellence and direct contracting, the opportunities are endless for employers trying to cut costs for their organizations and for their employees. It’s a smart and needed move. Employers are in the power position to lead the charge and to come up with strategies that not only help lower healthcare costs, but also reinvigorate their workforce.

One of the most exciting things about all these trends is there’s room for growth for each. And of course, there are plenty of other perks ready to take the spotlight in the coming year. I can’t wait to see what will happen next.

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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.