Benefit Trends to Watch in 2021

by Amber Cruz, PHR, CEBS, SHRM-CP

Benefits,  Bulletin,  Compensation

Even though the year 2020 has come and gone, it continues to teach us new ways of approaching the Human Resource function. The lessons we have learned, and continue to learn, have helped companies in ways I do not think we could have ever imagined before this pandemic. It has also illustrated that employees need to be viewed more holistically, rather than just workers who show up to a job every day. They are mothers and fathers of children who are staying home to go to school; they are children taking care of elderly parents to keep them safe from the virus; and they are friends and neighbors lending a helping hand to those that have fallen on hard times.

All these various roles can take a toll on individuals over time. That is why in the year 2021, companies are looking to enhance benefit offerings for employees, so they feel supported even in difficult times. Before the pandemic, many employers may have already offered or were moving toward offering the benefits we will discuss. The year 2020 just made them that much more important.

According to a survey conducted by The Hartford, employers have increasingly recognized employees’ needs and wants throughout this pandemic and are looking to offer benefits accordingly. Below we focus on benefits that are at the top of employer’s lists.

Expansion of Wellness Programs to Include Mental Health and Financial Wellness Resources– When wellness programs first rose to popularity, their primary focus was on physical health to help reduce the staggering increase of healthcare costs. They would incent employees to mainly move their bodies, engage in healthy eating, and healthy lifestyle choices. Which is not a bad thing given our largely remote workforce now. Many employees are working from home where it is easy to sit in front of a computer all day and not move. Movement is essential to keeping employees healthy. However, in recent years, wellness programs have started to expand from solely focusing on physical health to taking a more holistic approach by including mental wellness, financial wellness, social wellness, intellectual wellness, etc. In 2021, we expect the continued movement towards robust wellness offerings to meet the continuing demands of employees, specifically in the areas of mental health and financial wellness.

Mental Health Resources

It is no surprise that when an employee is struggling personally, it is very likely their performance at work struggles as well, and employees have struggled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020. In fact, a study conducted by Ginger revealed that nearly 7 in 10 employees (69%) indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic is the most stressful time of their entire professional career. Due to the increase in behavioral health concerns including mental health issues and substance abuse, in 2021, employers are looking to expand mental health access. A leading change is providing more online resources that include access to applications. There are many apps available, and they can provide access to virtual counseling sessions, mindfulness exercises, and telehealth. There is also a push to continue the effort to de-stigmatize mental health in the workplace. Employees do not seem to have as many concerns notifying their employer of a broken bone or a critical illness diagnosis. At the same time, many employees are dealing with depression and anxiety but are fearful of asking for help at work. Employers must continue to discuss this topic and create a culture where reaching out for help will not be met with judgment. Employers are also looking to either add an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to their benefit offerings or rejuvenate their current offering.

Financial Wellness Resources

Another concern for employees during this pandemic has been the financial stress the pandemic has placed on them. Many individuals stopped contributing to a retirement plan to save money or because the employer match was suspended. Others took advantage of the CARES Act withdrawals or loans. In 2021, employers are looking to offer benefits to help employees get back on track with saving goals, and financial wellness programs can help reduce stress. Offerings include one on one video consultations with a financial advisor to help employees learn how to set a budget, pay off loans and debt, and start to save for emergencies and the future. Like in the mental health space, there are online resources employers can provide access to. There are budgeting and money tracking apps and educational seminars employees can use to help manage finances.

Paid Time Off Programs – As employees needed time off due to the virus, either having it themselves or needing to care for a family member, it became clear that paid time off was a meaningful benefit to help employees financially and behaviorally. When employees felt they could take a day off and still get paid, it helped prevent them from coming into the workplace and possibly exposing co-workers to the virus. Although, according to Employers Council’s Paid Time Off Policies Survey from 2018, a significant percentage of employers surveyed offer paid sick leave or paid time off, not all employers do. This leaves room for some employers to improve upon this offering 2021. In addition, there are several states (including CO and AZ), even counties and cities that are mandating paid sick leave or time off in general. It is important to stay on top of laws where your employees work to remain in compliance.

Family-Friendly Benefits – Family-friendly benefits have also been on the rise over the years, even before the pandemic. According to a report released by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP), paid parental leave and fertility services are increasing. Paid maternity and paternity leave are the most prevalent, with 41% and 32% respectively of companies of all sizes offering this benefit. Fertility services being offered include in vitro-fertilization (IVF), fertility medications, genetic testing, etc. While 31% of companies with 500 employees or more are offering this type of benefit, of employers with fewer than 500 employees, only 10% offer it. However, that number is on the rise as well. Also, as the pandemic continues and schools remain remote or providing hybrid services, families will need help with childcare resources, including access to caregivers, and flexible schedules to accommodate remote learning.

Pet – Friendly Benefits – With many employees working from home, animals are being adopted at higher rates than in years past. What better time to adopt than when you know you will be around to train the animal? Even though bringing a fur baby into the home is an exciting time, pet owners need to understand the significant financial impact this can have. Expenses range from food to toys, and veterinary care, which can add up. Knowing about the increasing adoption trend, employers might find it helpful to offer pet insurance in 2021. Different plans cover routine care and medications to emergency care. They can provide comfort to pet owners, knowing their family member will be cared for despite the sometimes high price tag. Employers can also look at updating or implementing a pets-in-the-workplace policy or even allowing for time off when an employee has adopted a new pet, affectionately called Pawternity.

Student Loan Benefits – With student loans accounting for 1.6 trillion in debt, according to a Forbes article, it is no wonder why employers are starting to look at their role in helping employees pay down student debt. Just as the COVID pandemic has caused significant financial stress, student loans have been causing stress for some time on our employees, affecting their ability to be fully productive and present at work. The number of employers offering student loan repayment programs continues to rise as this is a benefit that can help employers stand out as an employer of choice. In addition to student loan repayment programs, employers can also help current students by offering tuition assistance plans and 529 plans with a possible employer contribution.

Home Office Benefits – As many employees transitioned to working from home, they started to see costs rise. Internet bills, heating, cooling bills, and the need to purchase necessary office equipment to work more efficiently started adding up. As a benefit to remote employees, in 2021, we are seeing employers begin to offer more benefits, including a home office stipend and reimbursement for office equipment. See the Employers Council survey Remote/Flexible Work for benchmark data on this topic.

Listed above is just a sampling of the different benefits employers are finding of importance during this ever-changing time. Many factors will play into the offerings an employer ultimately provides, including company culture, employee demographics, budget, regulatory changes, etc. As our environment continues to change due to the ongoing pandemic, employers must keep a pulse on employees’ changing needs. That is the best way to continue to offer benefits that employees will use and value in 2021. Call Employers Council for more ideas or to discuss the above in more detail.

About the author
Amber Cruz, PHR, CEBS, SHRM-CP

Amber has been an HR Consultant in the Integrated Human Capital Services department at Employers Council since 2007. She currently works and consults with member organizations in many facets of Human Resources including benefits administration, compensation administration, staffing, retaining and engaging employees, performance management, and workplace violence. She is also a frequent trainer and presenter in the areas of employee benefits, compensation administration, retaining and engaging employees, and addressing workplace violence. Prior to joining Employers Council, she worked in human resources in the for profit and not-for-profit sectors. Amber possesses a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Northern Colorado, is certified as a Professional in Human Resources (PHR), a SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP), and a Certified Employee Benefit Specialist (CEBS).