Among workplace changes introduced by COVID-19, there is a new attitude about employer-sponsored benefits. After the pandemic jolted the world of work and threw employees everywhere into a new reality of near-constant uncertainty, employees have a new appreciation for the value of their benefits. More importantly, employees have new expectations for them — from more support for mental well-being to expanded opportunities for upskilling, reskilling and career development.

It’s a wake-up call for learning and development (L&D) professionals as much as for HR and benefits leaders. In fact, Training Industry research earlier this year revealed that over half of L&D professionals have retooled or repurposed learning programs in response to the pandemic. The big message is that the new world of work requires a whole new approach to benefits, and the employees you most want to attract and keep are very likely looking for companies whose priorities match their own.

What’s the greatest illustration of this shift? It’s that non-core benefits have moved out from the shadows and onto center stage. Leveraging voluntary benefits is the only chance employers have to deliver the kind of holistic wellness and learning strategies employees are now looking for. They want coverage and programs that nourish and support their total wellness — including mental health — as well as facets of their lifestyle and their careers.

Adding Value to the Employer Brand

As a result, more companies have turned to voluntary benefits to support their employer brand and bolster their value proposition to candidates and employees. In 2018, only 33% of employers considered voluntary benefits as part of their employee value proposition. Today, the number has jumped to 94%.

No wonder the marketplace for non-core benefits has expanded, offering everything from identity theft protection to personal finance programs to mental health solutions. Even before the pandemic, voluntary benefits were on the rise. SHRM research this year revealed a five-year increase in all things wellness. Mindfulness, meditation and other mental health-focused initiatives were all rising toward the top of employees’ well-being priorities.

A Gradual Trend That Exploded with the Pandemic
During the pandemic, the demand for employee mental well-being support and resources grew exponentially. Entire workforces that were office-based have become “remote first,” and frequently change requirements such as social distancing and masking, uprooting everyday routines and increasing stress. The number of employers offering voluntary benefits increased 27% during the past enrollment period alone, according to new data from Aon.

“The biggest shift we saw in the last open enrollment cycle was the addition of voluntary benefits because they had little to no budget impact for employers,” said Dani McCauley, U.S. customer experience leader for voluntary benefits and enrollment solutions at Aon. “Employers have been able to improve employee satisfaction with an expanded menu of relevant voluntary benefits in light of COVID-19.”

As more companies embrace the hybrid work model, L&D leaders need to lean into learning and training, as well as more holistic wellness programs and tools that meet  people where they are and encompass the entire organization. Companies must also assess adding data-driven programs that empower employees across the board to navigate their own well-being. Today, it’s what employees want — and what top companies are offering.

Voluntary Benefits Meet Other Challenges for Benefits and L&D Leaders

There’s no going back, only preparing for the road ahead. As more employees seek out workplaces that demonstrate purpose, meaning and empathy, more employers are finding success by adopting a holistic approach to benefits of all types. They’re focusing beyond traditional core healthcare benefits (medical, dental, and vision) and embracing voluntary benefits that encompass total well-being in every sense of the word.

This shift toward expanding non-core products does more than align with the needs and expectations of a post-pandemic workforce. It also addresses a change in generational priorities. Almost 6 in 10 (57%) millennials and an even larger share (65%) of Gen Z workers are likely to look for a new job with better benefits, according to Unum research. Another survey found that if people had to choose between a high-paying job and a lower-paying one with quality health benefits, 88% of employees would consider the lower-paying job.

With open enrollment season just around the corner, the writing is on the wall for training and benefits leaders to see. Over 7 in 10 employees (71%) say they’ll be taking a closer look at their voluntary benefits as a result of COVID-19. Additionally, over half (53%) of those employees expect to change their benefits coverages.

Getting Fresh Attention: Support for Employee Mental Health

As part of the need to protect the employer brand and employees’ desire for more holistic support, it’s never been more important for organizations to prioritize mental health. Since the pandemic began, about 2 in 5 U.S. adults have reported symptoms of either anxiety or depression — significantly higher than the 1 in 10 who reported these symptoms in the beginning of 2019. That stress is compounded for essential and front-line workers. One study found that 42% of essential workers reported needing help with mental health-related symptoms, compared with 30% of non-essential workers.

Those numbers also have ramifications beyond what they say about employee wellness or the roles of HR and L&D leaders. They also carry devastating financial implications: The global cost of lost productivity, absences and turnover caused by untreated mental health issues is already estimated to be about $2.5 trillion annually. On the other hand, a recent study on “effective” mental health initiatives showed that voluntary mental health benefits return, on average, over $4 for every $1.

You can’t turn back the tide of non-core benefits. And of course, you neither need nor want to stock your benefits and L&D pantry with every new bright and shiny solution that comes along. But the market does offer truly valuable, non-core benefits and learning solutions that will deliver ROI, enhance your employer brand and show your culture is caring for the entire workforce. One proven example is a mental health program that is preventive, based in science and reaches all employees, not only those suffering from mental health issues.