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5 Employee Benefits Changed by COVID-19

It would be an understatement to say that the pandemic transformed what employees want and need from their benefit programs. In honor of National Employee Benefits Day on April 6, we thought we’d spend some time reflecting on five benefits that have changed over the past year, and why we think those changes are here to stay.

1. Mental health.

We all knew mental health was a critical concern before, but the health risks, isolation, financial worries, and caregiving challenges of the pandemic have now created a full-blown mental health crisis.

To put it in perspective, a Kaiser Family Foundation study conducted pre-pandemic found that one in ten adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorder. Now, one year in, the KFF reports that about four in 10 U.S. adults are experiencing these symptoms. Consulting firm McKinsey estimates the pandemic could result in a 50% increase in the prevalence of behavioral health issues. This could cause up to one in three Americans to seek care in 2021.1

There is now general acknowledgment that employers need to play a greater role in the mental health space—in part because employees demanded this, and also because organizations realize it is key to maintaining the productivity and health of their workforce. As such, we’ve seen companies offer virtual mental health benefits, more mental health sessions through Employee Assistance Programs, meditation and mindfulness programs and apps, and mental health first aid courses.

We’ve also seen a shift, thankfully, in how we approach the topic of mental health at work. There is a newfound understanding that depression, stress and burnout are topics we should feel comfortable discussing. And, that it’s OK for managers and leaders to be more open about their own mental health concerns. While we would never wish for a pandemic to make this happen, we are thankful that mental health is finally getting the attention it deserves and the benefits to back it up.

2. Childcare benefits.

Childcare in the U.S. has long been viewed as an individual responsibility—something that each parent has to figure out on their own. To be fair, many progressive companies offered caregiving benefits before. Still, when school and daycares closed due to the pandemic, it became increasingly clear that employers needed to get even more involved.

Alyssa Johnson, Vice President of Global Client Management for Care.com, summarizes it this way: “While the need for better childcare benefits is definitely not new, the pandemic has forced a universal truth into the spotlight: Childcare is simply integral to absolutely everything. Without it, parents can’t work, business can’t grow, and our economy collectively suffers.” Of particular concern to employers was the exodus of nearly 3 million women from the workforce who were faced with the difficult choice of continuing to work or opting out to take care of their families.

And so we have seen companies increase their back-up childcare benefits, create pods for remote learning, offer virtual summer camps, provide stipends for in-home care, and allow flexible working hours. While we are a long way off from the childcare benefits that parents in some countries enjoy, this is a step in the right direction, and hopefully, these new childcare support benefits are here to stay.

3. Well-being benefits.

When the pandemic hit, popular employee well-being perks like onsite fitness centers and in-person health coaching suddenly evaporated. On top of this, employees were now sitting at their desks or kitchen tables for Zoom calls for the better part of the day—with no buffer time to stretch or get a breath of fresh air.

Companies quickly realized that they needed to bring their well-being offerings online, and play a greater role in getting employees to engage with them.

Within weeks, organizations offered online yoga classes and virtual fitness memberships, free subscriptions to meditation and mindfulness apps, and even subsidies for healthy meal services. We are particularly proud of how our own staff pivoted to help clients shift to virtual programming, including ways to involve children in well-being. You can read more about our efforts here.

Perhaps most importantly, we saw a sea change in attitudes towards well-being. Senior leaders down to line managers communicated that well-being was a priority and employees could and should take time during the workday to care for themselves. Leaders modeled healthy behaviors like taking walking breaks or blocking lunch hours on their calendars. Many organizations, ours included, scheduled group exercise sessions on calendars just like regular meetings, which sent a powerful signal about the importance of well-being.

We will see what happens to traditional onsite employee well-being perks once we are all back in the office. But with the growing trend toward making flexible work permanent, virtual well-being benefits will likely continue as many work from home even after the pandemic.

4. Telehealth and virtual mental health counseling benefits.

To be sure, telehealth visits were a part of many benefits packages before the pandemic, but employees were not widely using them. When we couldn’t see our doctors in person during the early days of the pandemic, many people gave telehealth a shot and realized that it was a quick, convenient way to get help with non-life-threatening concerns. As employers began to waive copays, more and more employees took advantage of it, so telehealth benefits will likely continue to be part of medical plan offerings.

One of the greatest benefits of telehealth, though, has been in the mental health space. Prior to the pandemic, the logistics and scheduling of counseling sessions were barriers to seeking help. Now, when we can easily meet with a counselor in the comfort and privacy of our own homes, it’s much easier to get the care we need.

5. Flexible work and time off.

While working from home—for those who can—has its pluses and minuses, there is a general consensus that employees can be just as, if not more, productive remotely. So, as organizations consider their return-to-work strategy, many are adding in permanent policies for flexible work, including fully remote and hybrid options. This kind of flexibility will help with work-life integration and allow us to spend that commuting time engaging in well-being.

When it comes to time off and leaves, we have also seen some innovation. In addition to benefits provided by the CARES Act, companies acknowledged that workers needed more sick time, more leave to care for sick family members, extended leaves, and sabbaticals. Some organizations have even implemented unlimited vacation time off and sanctioned mental health or self-care days. Whatever form time off takes, the pandemic has taught us that we can’t give our all to work if we don’t have the time and permission to care for the other aspects of our lives.

One final thought.

Another way employee benefits have changed due to the pandemic is that we’re simply talking about them more than we used to. The pandemic has reinforced that benefits are an integral part of the employee experience, and not something we should confine to the two weeks when we enroll for next year’s plans. Throughout the pandemic, we needed our benefits. In the process, they got a full examination and makeover that will benefit workers for years to come.

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