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Mayer: 5 ways COVID-19 has changed benefits–forever

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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.

It’s amazing how fast time can fly in a pandemic. With more than a year of COVID-19 under our belts, we’ve seen unprecedented change in the workplace–and transformation in the area of employee benefits is no exception.

I recently took a deep dive into how the pandemic has impacted benefits over the last year and talked with a number of experts and CHROs to see how dramatic the impact of the past year has been on employers’ strategies for helping employees. Short answer (you guessed it): It’s a lot. The crisis has not only significantly shifted how companies look at and craft their benefits, but it has changed the way they communicate about their offerings and respond to workers’ needs. And what is perhaps most interesting of all is just what kind of a long-term impact this will have going forward.

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Here are five ways COVID-19 has reshaped benefits during the pandemic–and beyond.

Employers are looking at benefits with a wider lens. There’s no question about it: Smart organizations have turned to programs and benefits offerings as their No. 1 COVID-19 strategy in an effort to help employees during the most stressful time of their lives. In doing so, they went beyond the usual offerings and tweaked or added resources that would help workers during a very unusual period–from emergency leave for employees who were diagnosed with or had to self-quarantine because of COVID to bonuses for employees working as COVID-19 numbers spiked to stipends to help workers set up their new home office. Seeing employees who were parents reeling from school and daycare closures, some employers enhanced caregiving programs or backup care. Others, like Twitter and John Hancock, got more innovative with offerings, driving a trend in virtual camps to occupy employees’ kids over the summer.

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Related: The year that changed benefits: How COVID reframed HR support

Other offerings included financial wellness programs, meditation and sleep apps, and even extra time off to promote rest and prevent burnout (LinkedIn, for instance, gave every employee an entire week off to support their mental health). In short, creativity and innovation are happening in a new way. And with remote work likely continuing post-pandemic, I think we’ll see some really interesting things happen as far as how employers look at benefits to support those workers.

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Mental health, mental health, mental health. Did I mention mental health? Emotional wellbeing has always been absolutely critical: Even before the pandemic, mental health conditions were on the rise, though, let’s face it: Employers largely fell short in their efforts to help. But now, with scores of research pointing to soaring rates of depression, anxiety, burnout and stress, mental health attention has reached a fever-pitch during the pandemic. Acknowledging it’s no longer something they can ignore, employers have made moves to help address this as they witness what is happening to employees–and the effect these conditions have on their workplace. But just as important to note is that the mental health crisis won’t abide with COVID-19, meaning that employers must continue this laser focus on employee mental health.

The speed of change is changing. Something that’s been impressive about benefits strategies over the last year is the pace at which employers altered or added benefits. It was unprecedented and highly different than in years past, when it took companies years to make and implement benefit changes. “One of the biggest lessons has been flexibility and speed in being able to make decisions and make changes because the need was so great so quickly,” Julie Stich, vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, told me recently, noting companies had to move fast–sometimes in a matter of days–on everything from the logistics of remote work to new leave policies to mental health enhancements. “They have been [quick] because of sheer need; so many companies had to pivot in so many ways.”

Related: ‘Now is not the time’ for employers to back off mental health focus

It will be interesting to see how this continues. While it’s not a given that this will continue in the same way it has during COVID-19, it will have to to some extent. After all, benefits and offerings that work to address the pain points employees are going through at specific times work best when they actually need them.

It increased employee expectations from their employer. Over the past year, as workers were desperate to stay productive, healthy and calm, employees have been quicker to turn to their employer for refuge. They also are paying more attention to their benefits and relying on them more–although historically benefits was a topic they didn’t pay attention to. Research from The Hartford has found that, even as employees focus more on their offerings, there has been a drop in how workers perceive the value of their benefits and a decline in their trust that their company is making the best benefits decisions. That means the pressure is on for employers to offer a very robust benefits package that meets the needs of their employees–and employees will notice (and likely leave their organization) if they don’t.

There’s more care. In the simplest terms, COVID-19 was the gut check many employers and HR and benefits leaders needed. The crisis insisted that they go back to basics in how, and why, they take care of their employees and be there for them in times of trouble. More sick time? Bonuses to show appreciation? Time off for burnout? Childcare programs? That all occurred and came from a deeply personal place of wanting to help employees during the most tumultuous and stressful time of their lives. Important to note about this? Employees’ issues won’t go away with the pandemic. There will always be personal issues, family problems, financial concerns, individual health crises and much more. And as we’ve learned time and time again, employees don’t leave their personal problems at home. It will be vital for employers to show employees they care through resources and benefits. Or they will risk losing them to an employer that does.