Workplace benefits are taking on a much larger role in the employment relationship
By: Bill Zoils
Every once in a while, it’s probably a good idea for those of us in the benefits business to sit back and ask, Where are we going?
From where I sit, and from what I’m reading and learning from colleagues, I’d say that the biggest trend we’re seeing now is that the role of benefits in the overall employment picture is undergoing a fundamental shift.
To put it very simply, there was a time when benefits were seen as a perk to employment, and a nice-to-have add-on to the pay package. Not so much anymore. Now benefits are seen as a big part of the defining difference between traditional employment and the emerging new models of work.
At a time when we’re hearing more and more about gig workers, and contract jobs and independent professionals coming on board as consultants, it is increasingly the benefits that stand out as one of the key selling points of regular employment.
We see this most clearly when plan sponsors are asked the question, What is your main purpose for offering a benefits plan? According to the 2022 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, the main reason, cited as number one by plan sponsors, was “attract and retain employees.” There’s a theme there – this point always seems to be in first place.
“Provide coverage so employees are not under undue financial stress” was in second place, followed by “keep employees healthy and productive” and “provide peace of mind.”
When plan sponsors were asked, in the Benefits Canada survey, where they anticipated making future investments in workplace wellness, the results were as follows:
– Emotional or mental health: 46%
– Physical fitness: 32%
– Prevention/management of illness: 30%
– Social health: 28%
– Financial health: 26%
We see a reflection of that list when plan members were asked what they would like to add to their benefits plans (and what they look for when they are weighing different employment options).
– Health risk screening to assess personal risks of certain diseases (such as diabetes) was cited as “would like to have and would use if it was offered” by 32% of plan members. Interestingly, 41% of plan sponsors surveyed already offered this, and 25% said they were interested in doing so in the future.
I don’t want to fill the page with numbers and percentages, but the same story applies to the other items in the “like to have” list from plan members – a high percentage of plan sponsors either already cover them, or are looking at adding them in the future.
– Immunizations for infectious diseases, such as HPV or shingles
– Genetic testing to identify personal disease risks
– Health care system navigation assistance (help arranging appointments, testing and referrals)
– Genetic testing to determine the best drugs for the individual
– One-on-one education regarding chronic conditions
– Meditation, mindfulness apps
– Services to assist with caring for elderly relatives
– Services to help with substance abuse problems
– Fertility treatments
– Gender affirmation
That list seems to give us a pretty good idea of the up-and-coming features of benefits plans. But what are the overall trends that we have been seeing in benefits management? We’ve talked about all of these in past blogs, but I think it’s useful to pull them all together here, and to consider how much has changed in recent years – and how much more change can be expected in the future.
Member control and choice: This is part of the overall trend in which plan members are simply paying more attention to their benefits. They want to be in control as much as possible, and want to be able to adapt their plans to their personal needs. They want choices. Whether it’s health care spending accounts that everyone can take advantage of, or choices for on-line mental health counseling, access to telehealth, or a range of options for wellness and fitness programs, plan members want to be able access the services that they want, when and how they want them.
Mental wellness support: This comes up in basically every survey or analysis of trends in benefits management. I think part of the reason is that there has been much more emphasis on mental wellness issues in the last few years. But I think another big factor in the growth of this area is simply that there are more services available now, and that access – online, or via phone or video conference – is now also much more convenient, immediate and non-threatening. Plan sponsors, who see wellness as an over-arching goal, are providing support and encouragement, as well.
Telehealth: Can we thank the pandemic for the explosive growth in telehealth services and patient up-take? In any case, the technology is there for quick and efficient electronic consultation, and a large majority of consultations with a family physician can be handled this way – without taking half a day off work to travel to the doctor’s office and sit in the waiting room. As well, same-day appointments, either with one’s own family physician or with a telehealth service, are now more the rule than the exception. The growth of telehealth has also served to increase overall access to family physicians.
Life and LTD: Coverage for life and long-term disability is probably the most important service that plan sponsors can provide for their employees. Yes, thankfully, most plan members will never use either one of these benefits. That’s good all around, not least because it makes coverage affordable. But when the need for either life of LTD coverage does arise, it’s suddenly the most important thing in the life of that individual or family. Plan members should, of course, be encouraged to maintain personal life coverage as well.
Support for lifestyle improvements: Not only have we seen tremendous growth in this area in recent years, we are also seeing continuing demand among plan members for more. Whether it’s gym membership, counseling, an allowance for athletic shoes, fitness apps, or any of a long list of innovative ideas to help and encourage plan members to be fit, this is an area that is always top-of-mind when benefits are discussed.
Two other areas that are greatly impacting benefits management are 1) how to achieve plan sponsor and member goals in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); and, 2) how to most effectively manage benefits in the hybrid workplace and work-from-home world. (These are both huge topics that we may look at in future blogs.)
Overall, it occurs to me, the biggest trend in benefits can be summed up in one word – more. There are more challenges. More opportunities. Plan sponsors are offering more. They want their benefits to do more. And plan members are looking for more from their benefits plans.
I really appreciate comments, ideas, suggestions or just observations about the blog or any other topics in benefits management. I always look forward to hearing from readers. If there’s anything you want to share, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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