These are the benefits employees want most

What do workers want most from their employers in 2021? Above everything, they’re looking for time away from work.

Paid time off, flexibility/remote working options and paid family leave are the top non-insurance benefits employees want, according to a new survey of 1,500 U.S. workers by benefits provider Unum. The Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company gave survey participants a list of 16 perks–which were non-insurance benefits–and asked them to choose their top three options.

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Paid leave topped the list in the annual survey for the third year in a row, cited by 35% of employees. That finding comes despite the fact that significantly fewer Americans traveled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and generally, workers haven’t taken as much time off during the past year. Reports found that, overall, employees are not taking days off work, which is harming their emotional health.

“Paid time off is so important for employees’ mental health,” says Rob Hecker, vice president of global total rewards at Unum. “It allows them to rest, recharge and return to work more productive.”

Flexible and remote working options (27%) were second on the list of most-desired perks, while paid family leave (24%) came in third. Women, who are often the primary caregivers in their households, ranked paid family leave as more important, with 27% naming it as desirable, compared with 21% of men. Caregiving has been a top focus of employers this year, as a recent survey found that one in four women are considering leaving the workforce or taking a smaller work role because of added personal pressures during the pandemic.

Those three benefits beat out other popular perks, including fitness or healthy lifestyle incentives (19%), financial planning resources (18%), professional development (17%) and student loan repayment benefits (9%).

The survey, conducted annually by Unum, reiterated some of the benefit trends seen in the last year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paid family leave, for instance, was a benefit repeatedly clamored for by employees as they dealt with more personal responsibilities, such as children at home or more eldercare responsibilities. As a result, a number of employers rolled out new leave benefits or enhanced existing policies over the past year.

Related: Mayer: 5 lessons we learned about benefits in 2020

Meanwhile, though remote work and flexibility have always been popular among employees, their importance soared in light of the pandemic, as scores of employers sent employees to work from home. Furthermore, flexibility has become a COVID strategy for employers as employees have had to deal with a slew of challenges that have affected productivity, like helping kids with virtual learning or dealing with a number of other stressors.

Although time off has been a constant top perk on Unum’s list, this year’s survey found some significant changes from years past. Employee assistance programs, which have been a been focus among employers looking to help employees improve their mental health, jumped in importance from No. 12 in 2019 to No. 7 in 2020.

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Related: 10 strategies for improving employee mental health

And financial planning resources–another important COVID-19 strategy as employees dealt with worsening financial health–also landed among the top five perks for the first time. Meanwhile, identify theft protection jumped three spots to No. 8 and is the top-rated perk for Gen Z workers.

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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.