Progressive Benefits Policies

Organizations are expanding their scope of offerings to ensure employees feel valued and supported.

By Ruth Hunt

The COVID-19 pandemic is widely blamed for what is now called The Great Resignation: millions of workers in the U.S. leaving jobs each month, in record numbers. Workers’ expectations have changed, and many are seeking greater pay, better working conditions, and an improved work-life balance.

It’s a logical consequence of what might be called the “Great Reprioritization.” There are three clear contributing factors.

    1. For the past two years, loss and grief, whether from pandemic isolation, illness or loss of loved ones, or from social and political unrest, has helped workers realize the importance of relationships and connection.
    2. The blurring of work and home life left many parents struggling to help children learn at home, and cope with ongoing daycare and school closures.
    3. Working from home diminished many boundaries, causing some employees to work even harder with no clear demarcation of the start or end of the workday. From this, many workers experienced burnout.

The Conference Board recently found that 57% of surveyed workers said their mental health declined since the start of the pandemic, and workload was the culprit. With this comes a stark gender divide as 1.5 times more women report suffering from work-related pressures than men.

From well-being research, the need for social/community support is on par with the need for physical, mental, emotional, and financial guidance. The events of the last two years have caused many employees to question overwork and sacrifice, and to reprioritize social and family relationships. In exchange for committing to the organization’s success, employees are now asking: “What’s in it for me beyond a paycheck?”

The Conference Board survey also notes that nearly 80% of employers have formal policies in place to promote work-life balance, but only 54% think these policies are helpful. This confirms there is much work to be done for employers to truly develop a culture that supports balance and adaptability. And being proactive can help to differentiate employers and reduce departures.

Progressive employers are now taking a broader view of how they recruit, retain, and engage employees who have a range of needs. One thing they’re doing is re-evaluating their benefits programs to include support for family, affirmation and support for LGBTQ employees, and caregiving resources that encourage diverse working arrangements.

Family-Friendly Benefits a Must-Have

There are many ways to build a family, regardless of gender and circumstance. An increasing number of organizations realize that offering fertility benefits in their medical plan or a stipend for adoption support isn’t enough.

For some individuals, delayed pregnancy for career advancement or other reasons has added to fertility challenges. The National Institute of Child and Human Development reports that one in eight couples have fertility challenges and one in five same-sex couples are having babies or adopting children.

Workplace benefits programs are expanding to offer support for all couples. Funding support includes adoption costs, assistance with the purchase of eggs, sperm, or embryos, financing for the use of a gestational carrier or surrogate, increasing the number of covered cycles for in vitro fertilization (IVF), and encouraging fertility treatments through centers of excellence for greater success at more manageable costs.

Some employers also offer doula services. Certified trained doulas provide physical and emotional support to expectant mothers by helping with a birth plan and coaching during prenatal care and delivery. This support enhances health outcomes for parents and babies, and data suggests it is especially a difference maker in communities of color, or where there is limited access to pregnancy and reproductive healthcare services. Medical data shows that Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth, and make up about two-thirds of maternal deaths in the U.S.

LGBTQ Affirmation and Support

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI) is the national benchmarking tool on corporate policies, practices, and benefits pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer employees. To differentiate their value propositions in competing to attract and retain a diverse and inclusive workforce, forward-thinking companies are striving to score 100% on the index. In 2021, 78% of CEI participants said they provide inclusive benefits for same and different sex spouses and partners. Ninety-one percent of CEI-rated businesses (a record 1,040 of 1,142 respondents) offer at least one transgender-inclusive plan option with current market standard coverage.

Additional progressive policies for covering same-sex partners in benefits offerings and ensuring benefits are fully supportive include:
• covering same and opposite-sex partners;
• covering gender affirmation and transgender physical and mental/emotional health support; and
• other socially supportive programs, such as employee resource groups.

Sensitive and Differentiated Policies

Employers can reinvent work and related support by rethinking hybrid and remote work models. The COVID-19 Delta variant has caused return to office slowdowns for many professional workers, likely contributing to continued examination of how much face-to-face time is needed for collaboration and innovation. Many workers have come to appreciate the time saved commuting, which has benefited their ability to spend time with family as well as enjoy more flexible work time. A recent Catalyst study found 76% of employees want flexibility.

Caregiving resources also require re-examination. In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a drop in the labor force participation rate for all women with children under 18. The participation rate for fathers with children under 18 also declined from the previous year. This decrease was felt more sharply among married mothers and fathers than those with other marital statuses. And more often than not, mothers were more likely to stay home.

A Healthy Culture

A workplace where employees feel included, valued, and fulfilled has always been a critical key to the success of any enterprise. With The Great Resignation looming, these factors have become even greater priorities. According to the Catalyst study, more than half of employed parents in the United States are considering leaving their jobs because they feel their company or manager has not been empathetic to their concerns during the pandemic.

There is room for progressive employer policies to make a difference. The challenge for employers is understanding how American society is evolving, how family and relationship norms are changing, and the financial and emotional stresses that can come from these changes. Supporting employees through workplace benefits can foster a culture of well-being that enables people and organizations to thrive.

Ruth Hunt is a principal in the engagement practice at Buck.

Tags: November 2021

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