4 Ways the COVID-19 Pandemic is Reshaping Work Policies and Benefits
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the benefits landscape significantly in 2020, and those impacts are likely to carry forward in both temporary and permanent ways.
In a recent survey of HR professionals, recruiting and hiring was expected to be the biggest challenge for employers as they head in to 2021.¹ Almost half of those surveyed also cited diversity and inclusion as a challenge they are facing. Adapting employee benefits to be more attractive and inclusive is one strategy that can help overcome both of these challenges in the new year.
The impacts of the pandemic on families have helped employers recognize the need to do more for their workforce when it comes to supporting working parents—helping employees balance work, home, health and more. Additionally, the newest generations of employees in the workforce continue to demonstrate that an organization’s overall company culture is an increasingly important element, and the benefits offered that support their lifestyle beyond work contribute significantly to their choice of employer.
Here are four ways the pandemic is influencing work policies and benefits:
Flexible Work Arrangements
When it comes to new benefits for 2021, flexible work schedules topped employers’ benefits list, with 54% saying they’ll offer flexible work schedules to help workers manage caregiving or homeschooling responsibilities.¹ It’s no surprise that flexible work arrangements are a priority, considering the impact of COVID-19 in forcing companies to move employees rapidly to remote work environments. In a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey, 91% of human resource professionals agreed that flexible work arrangements positively influence employee engagement, job satisfaction and retention.²
Flexible work arrangements could include job sharing, a compressed work week, shifting from full-time to part-time work, or having the option of working remotely. In 2019, 80% of employees surveyed said they would be more loyal to their employers if they had flexible work options.³ That is possibly more true now, as many employees working from home during the pandemic have become accustomed to the flexibility that remote work allows, giving them options to better manage their work and home life responsibilities.
Paid Parental Leave
Perhaps when the pandemic has passed, we will look back at some of the permanent benefit changes organizations are making as a silver lining to the crisis. One third of employers surveyed this year are planning on increasing paid family or parental leave, and 20% are adding paid personal days or bereavement leave in 2021¹, to better support employees’ need for time to manage their lives outside of work.
This can help address the inequity women in the workplace have experienced for years, as they struggle to sustain their career alongside household and family needs. Working parents face unique struggles and many parents of newborns are additionally overwhelmed with changes that occur when a baby arrives. Due to the lack of a national approach to parental leave, it is critically important for businesses to take a leadership position in support of families by expanding their parental leave benefits.
Employers have learned first-hand that employees want to work for companies that value parenthood. In fact, among millennials, 60% said that being a parent is extremely important to their overall identity.⁴ The ability for an employee to take paid or unpaid leave has important implications for both families and employees. Paid-parental leave gives parents the necessary bonding time with a new child that enables them to be more successful as a parent and as an employee. It also supports the establishment of good breastfeeding habits, which can have significant short-and long-term health benefits for both mother and child. And there is increasing evidence that having access to maternity leave increases the likelihood that mothers return to work and continue progressing in their careers.⁵
The pandemic has brought a dramatically heightened awareness to the benefits of telehealth; providers have seen telehealth use increase 50 to 175 times⁶⋅⁷, and when surveyed, 76% of consumers said they were moderately or highly interested in using telehealth versus 11% in 2019.⁸
Organizations need to look at telehealth services as a core part of their health benefit strategy and expand that view to consider including the needs of new parents returning to work after the birth of a child. A study of emergency room staff found that 80% of pediatric emergency room visits were dismissed as non-urgent, and the leading causes of visits were persistent fevers, rashes and gastrointestinal problems.⁹ Offering virtual health benefits that enable new parents to speak with experts for non-critical questions about their family’s health is incredibly valuable. And for new parents, virtual access to experts should always include lactation consultants who can resolve common feeding questions and concerns. Real-time telehealth can easily connect parents to help when they need it, and lactation support is key to their ability to successfully continue to provide breast milk to their child.
Behavioral/Mental Health Services
Many U.S. workers are struggling with the emotional toll of the pandemic, worrying about their health and safety, their job security, their family and finances. And mental wellbeing can have a direct impact on quality of work, engagement, and overall productivity – all of which have a direct impact on a company’s health.
In a 2020 survey by mental health provider Ginger, 69% of employees indicated that the pandemic has been the most stressful time of their entire professional career¹⁰, which has aligned with stark increases in new prescriptions of antidepressant, antianxiety, and anti-insomnia medications. The research indicates that HR and benefits leaders should be looking at ways to help employees combat this added stress and anxiety by offering new or additional benefits that offer easy and direct access to mental health professionals. This might include rolling out or expanding access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or adding virtual behavioral telehealth services to allow for remote access to counseling.
Heading Into 2021
At the end of the day, employees want to know that their organization recognizes and understands what they are experiencing, and will provide solutions to help them in overcoming these challenges, so they can successfully achieve their career goals.
The new year should see some positive, lasting changes within U.S. companies, especially as organizations expand benefits that focus on the overall health and wellbeing of their workforce. A culture that creates space for employees’ lives outside of work is not just a perk anymore; it has become table-stakes in the race to attract, retain and engage today’s employees.
1. BenefitsPro, Recruiting, hiring top employer challenges in 2021,December 2020
2. SHRM, Leveraging Workplace Flexibility for Engagement and Productivity
3. FlexJobs, 2019 Survey. SHRM, Managing Flexible Work Arrangements
4. Pew Research Survey, 2015
5. The Economics of Paid and Unpaid Leave, The Council of Economic Advisors, 2014
6. Erickson M, “Stanford Medicine increases use of televisits to help prevent spread of coronavirus,” Stanford Medicine, March 30, 2020, med. stanford.edu.
7. Palo Alto Medical Foundation, “Video visits and COVID-19 response,” Sutter Health, 2020, sutterhealth.org.
8. McKinsey COVID-19 Consumer Survey, April 13, 2020
9. Sullivan, AF, Rudders SA, Gonsalve, AL, Steptoe AP, Espinola JA, Compargo CA, National Survey of pediatric services available in US emergency departments, International Journal of Emergency Medicine 2013.
10. Human Resource Executive, HRE’s number of the day: Coronavirus stress, April 2020