There is a growing gap between what employers think they're doing to support employees' wellbeing and the lived reality, reveals the 2020 Employee Benefits Trends Study (EBTS).

In 2020, 40 per cent of employees claim their employer isn’t offering any benefits or programs to support or improve their wellbeing.

MetLife research has previously reported employees are more concerned about their mental health than employers think, with  the disconnect first highlighted in the 2016 EBTS. In 2020, COVID-19 has added more pressure on employers to support employees mental wellbeing.

Surveys for the 2020 EBTS were conducted between August 26 and September 11, 2020, while many workplaces were significantly disrupted by the pandemic.

Forty-two per cent of employees claim their mental health is worse now than compared with how it was pre-COVID-19. The rate is especially high for women and parents, and those older than 36 or with little employer support during COVID-19. About three-quarters (76 per cent) of employees agree their mental health is directly connected to their financial, social and physical wellbeing.

The most important reason employees say their mental health is poor is concern over their financial position. Their main financial worries relate to short-term issues (paying bills and out-of-pocket medical expenses) as well as long-term concerns – outliving their savings and paying for healthcare in retirement.

Seventy per cent of surveyed employers acknowledge mental health is the most important aspect of employee health to focus on in the wake of COVID-19. Yet the 2020 EBTS also reveals 80 per cent of employers are still not tracking or measuring employee mental health. If it's not tracked, it can be difficult to make improvements.

Overall, employees reporting they feel stressed at work jumped to 78 per cent in 2020. About three in 10 employees claim they feel run down and drained of their physical and emotional energy (29 per cent and 28 per cent respectively), with rates higher for those aged 37 to 52. These employees are likely to be less productive, engaged and loyal.

Promoting employee wellbeing

Mental health in the workplace has always been a key topic of MetLife Australia's annual EBTS, which measures the impact of employee benefits and wellbeing programs by surveying more than 1,000 employees and 300-plus business leaders of Australian based companies.

The 2020 EBTS report includes five key benefits and programs employees say will help ease their stress and improve their wellbeing:

  1. Flexible work arrangements – 73 per cent of employers claim they offer flexible work arrangements but only 53 per cent of employees claim those arrangements are available to them.
  2. Increased time off – 56 per cent  of Australians claim they struggle to navigate the demands that come with today’s 'always on' work-life world. ‘Balancing home and work life’ is the second reason (behind financial concerns) for people making a poor personal mental health assessment.
  3. Work from home policy – 52 per cent of employees were working from home four to five days per week in September 2020, and nearly half now expect to spend more time working from home after COVID-19 than they did pre COVID-19.
  4. Additional super contributions – 27 per cent of employees say they are 'very concerned' about their financial health – more than they are worried about their mental health. Nearly half (47 per cent) claim they are not being offered financial health support.
  5. Mental health programs

The top five must-have benefits according to employees taken from the research:

  1. Flexible work arrangements
  2. Professional training, development and certifications
  3. Extra personal or carer’s leave
  4. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
  5. Extra paid maternity and parental leave

One positive from the 2020 EBTS is 38 per cent of employers have increased their employee benefits as a direct response to the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic – and 38 per cent view it as a permanent change.

In March, 76 per cent of Australians rated their employer’s response to COVID-19 as either 'good', 'very good' or 'excellent'. By September, 44 per cent reported the support received had improved compared to how it was at the start of COVID-19. Through this positive support, 57 per cent of employees say it has made them more loyal. Not only have they been given a chance to work from home and enjoy more flexible work arrangements, they have received ongoing communications (including reassurances of job security).

Delivered well, employee benefits and wellbeing programs can make a difference. Employees who enjoy programs and benefits – especially those that meet their diverse and changing needs – feel more successful, appreciated, engaged, productive, respected and loyal.

For more information read the MetLife Australia 2020 Employee Benefits Trends Study