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Rethinking Benefits in the COVID Era

By Phat Chiem | July 10, 2020 | Rally Health

The coronavirus crisis has changed the workplace in ways unimaginable just months ago. 

As companies grapple with the new normal of COVID-19, many are realizing that they need to take a fresh look at their benefits and ask themselves: What can we do to help our people navigate through the pandemic and beyond?

At the same time, many employers are struggling to simply stay afloat, so they need to balance the pressure to beef up their benefits and perks with their own bottom lines.

Despite some companies resorting to cost reductions such as layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts, nearly half of employers recently surveyed by Willis Towers Watson have enhanced their benefits in response to the crisis. The survey of 817 employers found that 47% have added to their health care benefits, 45% have improved well-being programs, and 35% have broadened their PTO/vacation policies.

“Employers are doing what they can to support their workers through this difficult time," said Regina Ihrke, senior director and well-being leader at Willis Towers Watson, in the report. "The pandemic has led to high levels of employee anxiety and stress, so employers are making it easier for employees to get help across all aspects of the well-being spectrum.”

Here are three ways that employers are changing their benefits programs in light of the ongoing public health crisis. We’ve identified both value and comprehensive options in each area to showcase potential solutions for every company, no matter what the size or budget.

To determine the best strategy or solutions, it’s important for employers to listen to their  workforce first to understand the very real concerns and needs of employees during these challenging times. Employers that take the time to reach out to their workers, ask a lot of questions, and follow up with concrete action will be remembered for their proactive response in this moment.

Sick Leave

Four out of 10 hourly workers don’t have access to paid sick leave, according to the Department of Labor. The pandemic has forced many employers to reconsider their policies here. A wave of national retailers, fast-food chains, and on-demand delivery businesses have started to make it easier for workers to get paid sick leave, even though employers aren’t required by law to offer it. Count Trader Joe’s, McDonald’s, KFC, Darden Restaurants, Walmart, DoorDash, Instacart, Lowes, and Target in this group.

Value option: Some employers are offering more flexibility with their attendance policy by allowing workers to call in sick without requiring a doctor’s note, for example.  Employees can also be given the option to work from home even if their job normally requires them to be onsite. The day could be used to catch up on paperwork or other administrative tasks.

Comprehensive option: Some employers that already offer paid sick leave are offering more days off per employee. For workers who have contracted the coronavirus or are experiencing COVID-like symptoms, offering unlimited sick days to allow employees to fully recover with peace of mind is a benefit that employers like Apple now offer.

Financial Wellness

Nearly 9 in 10 Americans report that the COVID-19 crisis is causing financial stress, according to a survey released in April by the National Endowment for Financial Education. That’s hardly a surprise, given the headlines about unemployment reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression. The survey found that 39% of respondents are worried about their job security and 41% are anxious about having enough emergency savings.

In the midst of the pandemic, companies are realizing that many of their employees are unprepared for an extended economic downturn or recession. In fact, more than one-third of full-time employed workers have less than $1,000 saved to deal with unexpected expenses, according to PwC’s 2020 Employee Financial Wellness Survey. So companies are helping out in ways large and small to get their people through this difficult time.

Value option: The uncertain economic environment is pushing more employers to offer so-called “early wage access” programs. These apps allow employees to get an advance on their next paycheck (usually up to half of their wages). Employees are charged $3-$5 per transaction while the service is free for employers to offer. 

Early wage access is especially popular with gray- and blue-collar workers, said Anastasia Iliou, marketing manager for Rain Instant Pay. “Many of these people would go to a payday loan for emergency funds,” she said. “At a few dollars per transaction, this is a lot cheaper than a payday loan and cheaper than even a $30 bank overdraft fee. But it’s not a loan. It comes out of wages the worker has already earned.”

Comprehensive option: Many employers already offer counseling and advisory services as part of their financial wellness packages. And others, including Rally, have brought in financial well-being experts to educate employees in light of the pandemic, specifically. A number of larger companies have also paid cash bonuses to employees recently, especially for workers deemed essential. Walmart has given out at least two rounds of bonuses ($300 for all full-time workers and $150 for part-time associates), totaling more than $1 billion. Conagra Brands, PepsiCo and Bank of America have also provided pandemic bonuses. Meanwhile, other companies have created COVID-19 relief funds for their most economically impacted workers or have loosened up requirements for their current employee assistance funds (EAFs) to meet the needs of the moment.

Mental Well-Being

There’s no question that workers are feeling more stress and anxiety since the start of the pandemic. They’re worried about their job security, their personal safety, and the health of their families. Additionally, millions of employees have been isolated from friends and family while in quarantine. According to the Pew Research Center, one-third of Americans (33%) have experienced psychological distress during the coronavirus outbreak. That figure shoots up to 55% among adults who describe their financial situation as poor.

A recent survey of 256 companies by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions found that 53% of employers are providing emotional and mental health programs to help their workers cope with the crisis. The offerings include access to employee assistance programs (EAP), tele-therapy, mental health apps, and online meditation and yoga classes.

Value option: Many Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) offer mental health services and stress management. EAP costs are reasonable depending on the size of the company and services offered and the return on investment can be substantial.

Other ways to improve your workers’ mental health include hosting virtual happy hours for team members, giving discounts for meditation apps like Headspace and Calm to alleviate stress and sleep issues, and offering subscriptions to online exercise and yoga classes.

For Rally’s own employees, we have added guided meditation and virtual stretch breaks during the day. We’ve also made free home workout videos from our Real Appeal digital weight loss program, as well as other well-being content, available here. Share these useful tools with your workforce to help them stay healthy while they’re sheltering at home.

Comprehensive option: Along with providing therapy sessions through their EAP programs, some companies are adding COVID-specific workshops with practical tips for coping with social isolation, managing anxiety, and overcoming health fears. Others are offering 1:1 sessions with “well-being coaches” that are helping employees take a holistic look at ways to shore up their emotional and physical health. 

Many employers are also giving their workers access to app-based, on-demand therapy services, some of which have seen demand grow by 30%-50% compared with the same period last year.

To help you address the recent uptick in employee stress, Rally hosted a webinar with the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, covering simple ways that employers can mitigate stress through comprehensive work design. Missed it? You can watch the full replay here. You might also be interested in our webinar on empowering employees to keep them engaged and motivated in the new workplace (even if they’re working remotely).

The Importance of Listening

However employers choose to change their benefit strategies in response to the coronavirus, the first step is to understand the needs of their workforce during this topsy-turvy time.

“Companies really need to listen to what their employees are saying right now to drive their benefits,” said Matthew Burr, a human resources consultant who runs Burr Consulting and specializes in working with small to medium-size businesses. “That’s common sense. But we have a tendency to say we’ll listen and not do it. The coronavirus is going to be with us for a long time, so companies need to ask the right questions of your workforce, follow up with people’s concerns, and be prepared to evolve.”

Nurturing this two-way communication is more important than ever. (Read our previous blog posts on the art of listening here and here.) Asking employees which services would be most helpful to get them through the unique challenges posed by the pandemic is an excellent start.

Note to our readers: This information is being made available as a free resource to the public. It is not an endorsement of any of the consultants, services, programs, or websites mentioned. The individuals and organizations referenced  have not solicited Rally Health to be included in the article and Rally Health receives no compensation from them.

Phat Chiem
Rally Health