Mayer: 5 lessons we learned about benefits in 2020

It goes without saying that benefits are always an important tool in the employer arsenal. But in a pandemic that’s affecting every aspect of employees’ lives? They’re absolutely vital.

Smart employers quickly turned to employee benefits as one of their COVID-19 strategies–as a way to make sure employees were taken care of if they or a family member got sick, to support their mental states and address financial concerns, and to help with personal issues like childcare or eldercare responsibilities. Overall, benefits were rethought to help workers through what the vast majority of Americans say is the most stressful time of their career.

COVID-19 is perhaps the most important time ever for benefits. It’s not a rehearsal. This is the real make-it-or-break-it for employers and their strategies. It’s the bar you will set for your legacy. While there is a lot we can say about what this year has meant for the benefits industry, here are five of the biggest lessons we’ve learned in 2020.

Compassion is the new guidepost. In a time of collective grief, uncertainty and anxiety, there is a new spotlight on how employers treat their employees. It’s not just about salary or nice-to-have perks–it’s getting to a deeper, more meaningful level. How do you help them cope? How do you show them you have their back? What resources can you provide? What flexibility? What recognition? What leeway? At a time when the world and our finances, our health and everything else seem so fragile, we often look to our work life as a constant. Point blank, employees are looking for leadership, guidance and support from their employers.

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Benefits that exhibit empathy are crucial and easy to spot–from financial wellness tools, stipends and bonuses to mental health programs, resources and apps to help employees manage stress, sleep better or meditate to focus and relieve stress. We also saw several new perks rolled out as a result of the pandemic, like virtual camp programs that aim to help working parents; virtual fitness classes; emergency paid leave programs; hazard pay; mental health days; and more. It’s a promising trend–and one that hopefully continues post-pandemic.

Benefits and resources need to be fluid. The same PPO or HDHP as last year? The same amount of sick time? No new resources? That’s not cutting it. This tumultuous year has proved that HR and benefit leaders need to be nimble and agile as far as their offerings and simply can’t roll over the same benefit programs year after year. They also need to be responsive and quick when needed–and they don’t need to wait until open enrollment or the next plan year to roll things out. It goes without saying that this is an important lesson during a pandemic, but it’s good practice all the time. Offerings need to be fluid and moldable as situations and employee pain points shift.

Benefit programs were lacking, and many were flawed. It’s important to note that the crisis didn’t just showcase employers that got it right. It also shined a light on what was wrong, including significant shortcomings in employer and voluntary coverage–from disparities in health benefits, paid sick leave and mental health coverage to an unwillingness on the part of some employers to embrace flexibility and remote work benefits. At a time when every employee–yes, every one–is feeling the impact of COVID-19, we see the vast array of issues plaguing the workforce: medical challenges, financial stress, caregiving and childcare responsibilities. It’s easy to spot the holes in coverage–from a lack of paid sick leave at retailers and a lack of offerings for part-time or gig workers to big benefit gaps in financial wellness support and mental health coverage. It’s proof that, while employers have come a long way, there is still a lot that employers and industries can do as far as benefit offerings.

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

We shouldn’t be scared of flexibility and remote work. We’ve talked about flexible schedules and remote work for a long time–and workers for years have clamored for the offering, repeatedly listing it as one of the top perks they wanted from their employer. COVID-19, of course, made that happen. And despite most employers being unprepared for the gigantic shift, it’s working well in many industries. Proof that it’s a pretty positive model for many employers means we can no longer ignore the request for the offering.

But it’s worth mentioning: Because we are in a pandemic, this isn’t exactly the amazing perk we wanted. Working from home during a pandemic often also means juggling childcare, home schooling, a spouse working from home, too, and a ton of other stressors. Things are hard, and employers would be wise to support employees while they’re working from home. Because it’s not a perk right now; it’s a necessity.

Related: I’m a remote worker. Here’s what I want HR leaders to know.

Mental health is the next big frontier in benefits. A slew of research points to a dramatic mental health crisis: Depression, burnout, stress and anxiety rates have all soared as a result of the pandemic and all of its associated problems. And the majority of employers haven’t been prepared and didn’t have the right offerings in place to address employees’ issues. Without help or resources–and employer understanding and compassion–issues will only increase or worsen as the pandemic enters its second year. Mental health is on track to become its own pandemic in the years to come–and employers need to work fast to get ahead of it.

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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.