Pandemic-driven employee benefits plan adjustments are here to stay

During the pandemic, the majority of companies have refrained from cutting back their employee benefits plans and focused instead on adding new products to the offering to address the situation. These additions are likely to stay as employers now deem them as part of their value proposition.

Companies that have come under financial pressure due to the government restrictions imposed to reduce infection rates have introduced a hiring freeze and/or made some staff redundant if needed, held off on pay rises, or even pushed for temporary pay cuts. In many countries, governments used tax income to finance furlough schemes and take up the slack, but finances came under stress for many people. In this context of austerity, it was good to see that employee benefits plans remained in place, and if anything, were built out to address the increased support needs of staff.

Since the start of the pandemic, companies focused on building out their mental health support, expanded wellbeing employee assistance programmes, and added telemedicine services and financial education to their offering. These initiatives are reassuring evidence of the value companies place in their employee benefits offering. And it has paid off.

Companies’ benefits packages have helped limiting disruption to the workforce and the way a company operated during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the need for financial education has grown as the pandemic created stress for many families as family members were put on furlough or perhaps even lost their jobs. Financial education sessions have offered support and solutions to employees whose finances came under stress, supporting their mental health and ability to perform at their jobs.

In general, wellbeing has been the focus of decision-making and gained importance in terms of future adjustments to benefits plans. As flexible, blended working became a necessity during the pandemic, interest in adding social wellbeing apps as well as mental health support and tele medicine services to the employee benefits package has risen considerably. Telemedicine has been around for a long time but its use has accelerated substantially as governments issued stay at home orders. Moreover, it is here to stay as employers are likely to keep a hybrid-working mode and the flexibility introduced during the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the pandemic has exposed some gaps in companies’ global employee assistance programmes (EAP). EAP is usually the first line of defence for employees in any kind of trouble, in particular mental health, but also other areas including financial concerns. While many companies had great EAP arrangements in larger countries or in their headquarters, some offered only limited access to the programme in smaller countries or niche operations. Many companies saw the need to address this issue during the pandemic and looked to implement a truly global EAP programme to offer all staff access to this first line of defence.

The build out of the benefits offering on the back of the pandemic is set to improve the way in which companies support employees long into the future. The pandemic has tested employee benefits plans and their ability to support staff in times of need. The good news is that most of the benefits plans in place have actually delivered and performed well, including life and health insurance schemes.

The obvious value of the employee benefits propositions may have played a role in companies’ decision to keep and expand their benefits during the crisis and look for other areas to cut cost instead. The fact that changing benefits plans can be a time consuming and complex process may have played a role although only a minor one, as companies were really eager to expand their wellbeing offering.

The pandemic has shown again that companies do view employee benefits as a key component of their value proposition and that the offering does play a key role in competing for talent and in positioning the company as an employer of choice.