Innovative, inclusive, interactive: Top employee-benefits trends for 2021

Companies keen on recruiting and retaining top talent should plan for perks that workers crave in these stressful times. Read on for pivotal engagement ammunition.

By Robby Brumberg      @robbybrumberg      
2021 top employee benefits perks

The pandemic is creating an intense arms race for talent.

With thousands of companies switching to remote work—many on a permanent basis—workers are actively weighing their options. And despite widespread economic turmoil, there’s no shortage of opportunities to mull.

This new dynamic empowers employees to find work literally anywhere in the world. It also shifts pressure onto employers to give employees meaningful reasons to stick around.

What workers want—and expect

Companies should consider the new maximum-flexibility reality a wake-up call. It’s not a “hot trend” that’s going to fade. Many workers have plainly stated they won’t even consider returning to a job that doesn’t offer post-COVID remote-work flexibility.  

So, beyond flexibility, what do workers want?

Fran Bishop, CEO of Aerobodies, a wellness consulting firm, foresees companies taking a more purposeful and integrated approach toward employee well-being in 2021. “We’re seeing more interest in integrating employee well-being into organizational work experiences and performance goals,” she says, citing such examples as “town halls with leadership, starting meetings with mindfulness practices, weaving emotional intelligence into meetings, and mindfulness coaching.” She also said she sees a sharp uptick in work-from-home “care kits,” which might include ergonomic support or home-exercise equipment.

Fran Bishop

Beyond all this, here are some top trends to consider, grouped under key well-being umbrellas.

Financial wellness

Employers must go beyond retirement accounts, 401(k)s and savings apps. To ease the burden of financial stress on employees—which has devastating effects on productivity, morale and engagement—companies should take on a stronger, more active role to help employees strengthen their financial position.

For example, they might consider implementing payroll-based borrowing or student-loan relief to ease debt burdens and help employees escape predatory lending. Many companies are creating “rainy day” funds for employees by automatically rerouting slivers of cash from each paycheck into savings accounts. Helping to defray childcare costs is another idea that’s bound to be well-received by workers.

Or they might pursue “providing one-on-one financial coaching via phone to help employees prioritize expenses, manage loan payment decisions, and evaluate implications of accessing retirement funds.”

According to Aaron Harding, PwC’s financial wellness leader, companies should consult employees before deciding on any new perks or plans. He says corporate wellness plans should:

  • Connect employee needs to employer-provided benefits (such as an HSA or a legal-services plan).
  • Focus on prevention and intervention, to help prevent crises before they spiral.
  • Integrate financial wellness into broader wellness initiatives.

For more guidance on these kinds of benefits, look here and here.

Mental health

If there’s a silver lining to be salvaged from this horrendous year, 2020 has forced workplace mental health out into the open. What was once a taboo subject has gone mainstream, and companies are making more effort to help worn-out workers.

Expect that trend to continue into 2021 and beyond, with employees offering increased access to mental-health services and care. According to The Washington Post, “employers are offering more voluntary benefits like ‘hospital indemnity’ plans, paying for couples therapy and providing access to prepaid legal plans for workers concerned about getting their end-of-life affairs in order.” The piece goes on to say that companies plan to expand access to telehealth platforms and mental health benefits, with Gartner’s Brian Kropp adding:

“The big realization a lot of these companies have had during the pandemic is that there’s so much that happens in your personal life that affects your work.”

With those burdens and hurdles in mind, companies should plan to prioritize these strategies in 2021.

  • Openly communicating about mental-health issues—and challenging the negative stigmas.
  • Promoting available resources, such as employee-assistance programs, online support groups, or telehealth counseling services.
  • Supporting workers with empathy, understanding, flexibility and tangible support.
  • Prioritizing personalized communication, and consistently providing public praise and private recognition.
  • Training managers on how to encourage, uplift and support workers—and how to spot signs of risk.

Organizations that believe they’re doing enough in safeguarding employees’ mental health and communicating available resources might want to take a harder look. One MetLife study found, “Nearly 60 percent of employees struggling with mental health said their employer doesn’t offer mental-health programs that meet their needs, or that the programs they do offer are too difficult to access or understand.”

Offering plenty of paid time off never goes out of style, either.  

Physical health

How can stressed out employees stay fit and motivated in 2021—and how can organizations help? Beyond wellness apps, offering easy, fun ways to keep workers excited about making healthier choices is one initiative to consider.

For example, creating “get active” meetings, could entail some communal walking or yoga while teams talk shop. Employers should also weigh the benefits of activity-based HSA accounts. They can make daily (tax-deductible) contributions to reinforce desired behaviors, whether it’s 10,000-step days or 30-minute exercise sessions.

Lifestyle spending accounts are another big trend. According to Discovery Benefits, “LSAs let you set aside post-tax funds for your employees to spend on a variety of expenses, which you can determine. The eligible expenses may include exercise equipment (home gym), meditation, counseling services, and nutrition counseling.”     

Of course, comprehensive health benefits remain a crucial component of retention. So long as medical expenses remain the No. 1 cause of U.S. bankruptcies, employers should be prepared to help employees bear the heavy burden of American health care.  

Don’t be afraid to get creative—and personal

What other perks are employees interested in? That’s for organizations to find out. Ask workers what they want and what might make their lives richer and their jobs easier.

There likely would be some votes for:

  • Professional-development perks
  • Pet-friendly benefits (including pet insurance)
  • House-cleaning or help with chores
  • Corporate social responsibility benefits (such as time off for volunteering and DE&I work)

Aerobodies’ Bishop does, however, share a warning about trying to do too much. Even with wellness offerings, “digital burnout” is a real concern. So, take care not to overload employees with more tasks or pressure to perform.

Whichever well-being path organizations are pursuing, they need to take time to understand employees’ daily routines and stressors amid COVID-19. Using that data, along with feedback and voiced preferences, will help drive decisions for 2021 and beyond.