The COVID-19 crisis has tested the limits of people and businesses across Australia and the world. No industry has gone untouched, with business owners having to adapt and, in some cases, make difficult decisions when it comes to the support they can provide their workforce.

In response to the pandemic-related economic uncertainty, employers have been rethinking their benefit offerings. Many have taken one of two paths: reining in their employee benefits, or doubling down. The MetLife 2020 Annual Employee Benefits Trends Study (EBTS) revealed that 38% of employers had increased employee benefits as a result of COVID-19, while 21% said they had either reduced or removed them. Of those businesses that reduced benefits, the majority (71%) indicated reductions in benefits were temporary – but 21% said they were permanent.

Although dialling back employee benefits is an understandable decision during a difficult time (it is important that employers have communicated why and provided ample notice), workplaces that have been able to maintain or increase their benefits have seen positive outcomes for employers and employees alike.

Building a loyal workforce

The positive impacts of employee benefits are compelling. MetLife EBTS data shows that employees who received more support from their employers are more likely to be productive and engaged, more loyal, and less likely to burn out.

Further, the more benefits an employee is offered and the more that they are aware and understand how the benefits work, the more likely they are to say they feel supported during COVID-19, which has a direct impact on how loyal that employee feels towards their company.

Unfortunately, however, not all employers are gaining the advantage of a more loyal and productive workforce. The reason for this is simple: encouraging efficient and widespread understanding and use of benefits is often harder than anticipated.

And while increasing engagement, reducing employee stress and improving mental health have become important objectives for employers in 2020, most are not tracking or measuring how their benefits schemes are achieving these goals.

Keeping benefits on track

The good news is, the benefits employers are offering are well aligned with the needs of their employees. Over the past year, employers have been supporting their workforce by offering greater flexibility, additional sick leave and personal leave; mental health support and counselling; financial support in the form of additional pay or WFH reimbursements; online social events and support; and physical health support in the form of nutrition and exercise classes.

The challenge for employers is encouraging more active benefit use and measuring the impact of their benefits, to ensure they have a strong business case and can demonstrate their impact.

Employees who say their employer offers benefits or initiatives to support  and improve their wellbeing are more engaged and productive. Furthermore, employees that better understand their benefits, rated each area of their holistic health (mental, financial, physical, social) as higher than those who don’t. Employees with a better understanding also feel more productive, engaged, valued or appreciated, loyal, and less stressed. As an example, ensuring employees understand the company’s EAP is private and safe is key, as is encouraging employees not to wait until they think their concerns are ’serious enough’ before using the services offered.

From there, measurement can track indicators including improvements in culture; increased engagement; reduced stress or burn out risk; increased productivity; and decreased absenteeism.

Employers will play an important role in supporting employees and their wellbeing as many begin to return back to the physical workplace in 2021. This, in turn, will give these employers a significant competitive edge that will last well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more information: Read the MetLife Australia 2020 Employee Benefits Trends Study