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How workplace benefits might reflect the new reality of Covid-19

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This fall, when employees sign up for next year’s workplace benefits, they should take a close look at the offerings. Odds are they’ll be changing in 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic was hard on employers and workers, forcing them to adapt on the fly amid social distancing and efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Suddenly, employees found themselves working extended hours from their kitchen tables while caring for their children, often at the same time.

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Workers are stressed out. Their bosses know it. That means their workplace benefits could reflect that new post-pandemic reality.

“It’s an opportunity for employers to re-look at what they’ve been providing,” said Kristen Appleman, senior vice president at payroll provider ADP.

“How do you position it?” she asked. “Can you increase it to provide for mental health or support services, including child care and dealing with adult family members?”

Here are three major themes employees can expect to see during the 2021 benefits enrollment season.

Greater use of telemedicine

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Employers may have started offering telemedicine in recent years to keep the cost of care down, and the pandemic has helped drive employees toward remote medical treatment.

Indeed, 43% of employers polled by Aflac say they now offer telemedicine to their workers, up from 29% last year. The insurer polled 1,200 benefits decision-makers from June 12 through June 30.

“It’s partially the convenience factor, but there’s also the fear factor: I don’t want my employee in high-outbreak cities going to the doctor if I can accomplish the same level of care virtually,” said Matthew Owenby, chief human resources officer at Aflac.

Virtual medicine has also given employers a way to provide greater access to mental health care.

More than a quarter of employers polled by Aflac said mental health issues have affected their business in the past year. About 30% say they’ll offer virtual mental health coaching, up from 18% in the prior year.

“Wellness plans aren’t new and have been a thing for about 10 years now,” said Liz Supinski, director of data products at the Society for Human Resource Management.

“We’ve seen wellness plans move into the mental health space and more offerings around stress relief, relaxation and yoga,” she said.

Addressing the childcare conundrum

Whether parents are working remotely or their jobs require them to leave home, chances are they’re juggling childcare and virtual-learning demands at the same time.

Low-income families face the brunt of the childcare conundrum.

That’s because few of them are able to work from home in the first place. Less than a quarter of households with income below 250% of the federal poverty level can do at least some of their work remotely, according to the Urban Institute.

Employers’ offerings in this space won’t be a panacea for stressed-out parents, but it will at least offer some measure of relief. 

“The marketplace is crying out for solutions,” said Supinski at the Society for Human Resoureces Management. “There are indications that childcare may not recover and so many childcare providers may be going out of business.”

Three in 10 employers offer access to backup childcare, while another 30% either plan to add it or are considering doing so, according to data from Willis Towers Watson. The consultancy polled 553 U.S. employers, most of whom have at least 1,000 employees, the week of Sept. 7.

Just over a quarter of the employers polled by Willis Towers Watson have offered discounts or subsidies to help offset the cost of childcare centers and tutoring.

Meanwhile, 16% said they’ve contributed to parents’ dependent care flexible spending accounts, a tax-favored account that families can access at work to help offset the cost of care for kids under age 13, Willis found.

An emphasis on wellness

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Whether it’s keeping workers from burning out or ensuring they’re managing their finances, employees should anticipate seeing greater emphasis on wellness programs at the workplace.

“Your health and wellness can really change medical outcomes if you take care of yourself,” said Owenby of Aflac. “These benefit programs will become more standard offerings, versus a ‘nice to have.'”

Those wellness initiatives include stress management programs, web-based resources for healthy living and even free testing for Covid-19, Aflac found in its research.

“We’ve seen plans either discontinue physical fitness in favor of broadening mental health or physical fitness options migrate to various online options,” said Supinski at the Society of Human Resource Management.

Finally, workers might see their employers place a greater emphasis on taking time off – even if that means they’re just escaping to their couches.

Depending on the employer, workers might wind up carrying over more vacation days into the new year. Or they might also get more of a nudge to use up accumulated hours before this year ends.

“What we’re seeing is, ‘Hey, we want you to take this time off and have a coordinated effort,'” said Appleman of ADP. “It might not be this grand vacation, but take some weekends, some half-days.”

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