Expectations are higher than ever when it comes to how accountable organisations should be for their employees' wellbeing, according to respondents surveyed for the MetLife Australia 2020 Employee Benefits Trends Study.

Given how many hours people spend at work (even if they're working remotely), employees expect high levels of employer support, particularly in the areas of financial and mental wellbeing. But are those expectations being met?

Yes and no, say more than 1,000 employees surveyed for the MetLife Australia 2020 Employee Benefits Trends Study (EBTS).

Of those employees who say 'Yes':

  • 44 per cent claim the support they've received from their employer has improved since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • 38 per cent say their employers increased employee benefits offered because of COVID-19 (38 per cent viewed these as a permanent change)
  • 57 per cent say the support they received has made them a more loyal employee

Remarkably, these responses show the employer-employee relationship improved in some organisations during a challenging year when the way we work evolved so rapidly, but only in organisations that took on responsibility for supporting employees' financial and mental wellbeing.

Of those employees who say 'No':

  • 47 per cent say they have felt unsupported by their employer because they weren't offered initiatives or programs to help them with their financial health
  • 40 per cent claim their employer isn't offering any benefits or programs to support or improve their overall wellbeing
  • 21 per cent say their employers reduced or removed employee benefits (71 per cent viewed this as a temporary change).

Prioritising employee wellbeing

Mental health was rated as the most important aspect of employee health to focus on in the wake of COVID-19 by 70 per cent by employers. This is a positive sign given 42 per cent of employees claim their mental health is worse now compared to pre-COVID-19 levels.

Many bosses acknowledged their mental health concerns were magnified during the pandemic, with one stating: "Mental health is our top priority because it's affecting everyone, including me personally; I'm normally a very strong-willed person but COVID is definitely getting to me."

Other employers were equally emphatic: "Our employees' mental and physical health is paramount," said one boss; "Mental health is often neglected in workplaces so we think it's important to support our employees on that," added another. One small business owner suggested: "It’s a very unfortunate situation to be in and most people don’t have the experience of anything like it that could help them handle it. If the mental health of employees is taken care of first, other elements of health can improve, too."

The key reasons given for poor mental health include:

  • Financial concerns – 27 per cent of employees are 'most concerned' about financial health, while 52 per cent of employees are concerned about their financial health in the wake of the pandemic
  • Balancing work/home life – 40 per cent of employees say they struggle to navigate the demands that come with today’s more flexible, 'always-on' work-life world; 60 per cent of employers say their organisation is struggling to keep up with the blended work-life world (this is 3 percentage points up from the 2019 EBTS report data)
  • Job security – 38 per cent of current full-time employees say their job or employment status has been directly impacted as a result of COVID-19; 36 per cent of full-time employees expect there to be an impact eventually

MetLife Australia's 2020 EBTS found employees clearly expect their bosses to address these mental health issues by providing support for financial and mental wellbeing. The study also highlights several big opportunities:

  • Financial concerns – organisations can help employees feel more secure in their finances by offering benefits beyond their salary, and the majority of employees surveyed rate the following benefits as 'must-have': medical (health) insurance (86 per cent); vehicle insurance (72 per cent); home insurance (65 per cent) and life insurance (55 per cent); 69 per cent of employees polled before COVID-19 said having a wider array of benefits would increase loyalty to their employer
  • Balancing work/home life – 87 per cent of employees pre-COVID-19 were interested in working for an organisation with policies that place boundaries on their working hours

COVID-19 highlights need for employee benefits programs

In answer to the question: "Should organisations be responsible for the health and wellbeing of employees?" the responses are unequivocal:

  • 77 per cent of the 300-plus leaders of Australia-based organisations canvased before the pandemic agreed employee wellbeing needs to be a high priority
  • 73 per cent of employees surveyed before COVID-19 agreed organisations have a responsibility for the health and wellbeing of employees
  • By April 2020, those expectations jumped to 80 per cent of employees agreeing employers have this responsibility

Most Australians had to cope with COVID-19-related challenges in how they worked in 2020, including lockdowns, working at home and then returning to workplaces with more movement restrictions. Leaders of organisations who stepped up in response to these challenges gained kudos for demonstrating authentic caring for employee wellbeing.

Equally importantly, as 'The New Work-Life Reality' chapter of MetLife Australia's 2020 EBTS explains, these authentic leaders are better placed for whatever tomorrow brings. Employers who understand their employees’ experience and needs — and take action to help them manage the challenges they face inside and outside of work — will have a more engaged, productive and successful workforce.

Dive deeper into workplace wellbeing insights: download the MetLife Australia 2020 Employee Benefits Trends Study