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Mayer: What the pandemic is teaching us about benefits

Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s 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. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.

Over the past few months, I’ve followed the changes employers have made to their benefits programs in response to COVID-19. I’ve seen employers drop benefits or add them or expand them. I’ve followed what they’ve done about remote work. I’ve heard their challenges and concerns. I’ve talked to a number of experts and HR leaders about healthcare and financial wellness and more.

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It’s given me a lot to process and time to think about what the pandemic, as a whole, means in terms of employee benefits. While there are many things that can be said, here are a few lessons we’ve learned so far.

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Wellness is key. The health and wellness of employees is the No. 1 priority for employers right now. And if it’s not, then those companies have some changes to make. While the pandemic is bringing to light a number of challenges for organizations, prioritizing employees’ health, safety and wellness are most vital.

It’s not surprising that health and wellness should be the top focus during a health crisis, but the current situation also serves as a reminder that health and wellbeing are fragile and should always be prioritized. Chances are, your employees are always going through some challenge, whether it’s a personal, health or financial issue. Employee health and wellness should always be prioritized with a thoughtful, robust suite of offerings. Without that focus, an organization will not thrive.

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We can no longer ignore remote work and flexibility. Coronavirus pushed the massive implementation of remote work, to be sure, but the way it’s working has proven that the model will continue post-pandemic. Scores of employers have not only embraced and continued remote work in the midst of the pandemic, but many plan to continue to offer it indefinitely, which means big shifts to the workplace.

“I think companies are going to see that some, maybe many, of the jobs they’ve always thought had to be done on-site could be done just about anywhere and could be done just as well,” Mark McGraw, i4cp’s total rewards research analyst, recently told me. Meanwhile, data from Gartner found that 82% of company leaders plan to permit employees to work remotely at least part of the time even after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Importantly, offering remote work and flexibility options gives employees a benefit they’ve been requesting for a long time. At a time when things are hectic, giving employees flexibility–and trusting them to do their job in the process–is paramount. And it should continue.

Employers need to adapt benefits as needed. The last few months have proven that HR and benefits leaders need to be responsive and agile in adapting their offerings for employees. Ping pong tables and company-paid lunches and happy hours have been popular, but are they needed during a pandemic? Clearly not. Even once-hot benefit trends, like student loan repayment or breast milk shipping, aren’t top of mind right now. Now, it’s about having the right benefits in place to address employees’ pain points. Of course, comprehensive healthcare coverage, telemedicine, and paid sick and other leave are needed but the pandemic also is shining a light on the importance of mental health coverage, resiliency and stress-management programs, financial wellness, childcare and caregiving benefits, and more.

Smart employers have taken a hard look at their benefits since the start of the pandemic and rolled out, altered or leaned on existing benefits to help. Some have made wellness options virtual. Others have boosted paid time off, handed out bonuses to help during financial difficulties and added childcare benefits for parents who are struggling. Reshifting priorities and adapting benefits programs to give employees what they need when they need it will benefit employees, but it also will benefit employers by keeping employees engaged, productive, healthy and, well, sane.

There is a lot of room for growth. Perhaps most important to note is that the crisis is shining a light on 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 coronavirus, 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 to mental health coverage (which I addressed in recent 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.

Bottom line? Life has changed, work is changing–and benefits should, too.