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Many different elements factor into which employee benefits are most valued

By BECKY GILLETTE

Health insurance costs continue to rise, low unemployment rates mean stronger competition for top talent, and there is legislation such as Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. All those affect what types of benefits employers provide, as well as the need to cater to a multigenerational work-force that requires different benefits at different life stages, said Dr. Danielle Ammeter, assistant dean for undergraduate programs and instructional assistant professor of management in the University of Mississippi School of Business.

Danielle Ammeter

Russ Willis

Health-care insurance and retirement benefits tend to be the top two most valued employee benefits. Ammeter said with Baby Boomers preparing to retire, some employers are allowing these employees more flexibility to keep them and their knowledge in the company. This can manifest itself is some sort of a phased retirement program.

“As far as trending benefits for this generation, you might see life coaches to advise them on the next stage of life, providing them with an opportunity to volunteer in the community (building brand awareness for the company and providing the employee with connections outside of work), creating an employer-sponsored support group relevant to these employees, and legal advice (wills, estate planning, preparations for elder care, etc.),” Ammeter said.

One of the biggest priorities of younger workers is anything employers can do to help with student loan debt. For example, Abbott Laboratories has a new program that if 401(k) eligible employees are paying two percent of eligible pay toward their student loans, the company puts two percent in their 401(k)–instead of a traditional 401(k) matching program.

Many companies provide financial literacy/financial fitness programs. They can also help people save money with casual dress codes, healthful food onsite (supplemented by the company), commuting/public transportation assistance, and opportunities to work remotely.

“This younger generation is interested in anything that will help them personally and professionally grow such as training, volunteer opportunities, career rotation programs, and mentoring,” Ammeter said. “They also like their benefits in an app…health coaching/exercise tracking, telemedicine, employee recognition/reward platforms, etc.”

Something new being seen is a Lifestyle Spending Account (LSA) that allows employers to make taxable contributions to an employee’s account that employees can spend on employer-approved services such as fitness classes, running shoes, a college course, life coach, etc. The company only pays out what the employee uses.

Working remotely at home is highly valued by many employees, and it can definitely reduce costs…a company does not pay for office space, utilities, maintenance, and insurance.

“Also, unplanned absences from work are minimized,” Ammeter said. “It can benefit organizations in other ways, such as fast recovery after a natural disaster because not everyone is in one location and they can recruit over a large geographic area.”

Employees also benefit financially because they may not need to purchase work clothes, dry cleaning, transportation costs, lunches out and child care, etc. Ammeter said that since this benefit can help employees balance work and personal life, it tends to be valued by employees, especially Gen Y/Millennials.

“Certainly, if an employee has a dedicated work space at home, a conducive environment, good work habits, and minimal need for supervision, they can be far more productive because they can really focus without interruptions,” Ammeter said. “Also, they have more control over their schedules and are able to take care of things that may have been causing them stress. However, it can also hurt productivity if the person does not have the type of work or type of personality well suited to working from home. The organization needs to be strategic in determining what needs to be done in person and what could be done remotely.”

In 2017, many large companies such as Yahoo!, Bank of America, Aetna and IBM were calling their remote workers back into the office. Ammeter said as organizations, they needed to be more innovative and competitive and wanted to bring people back together to improve their ability drive better innovation.

Yet, according to the Society of Human Resource Management, 69 percent of companies offer ad-hoc telecommuting, 42 percent offer telecommuting on a part-time basis and 27 percent offer full-time telecommuting.

Russ Willis, an assistant professor in the University of Southern Mississippi School of Management, said telecommuting is a big trend. Many more companies are allowing employees to work remotely from home because of the technology that enables that.

“Whether or not a company offers telecommuting is dependent on the type of work and industry it is in,” Willis said. “But you definitely see more and more companies doing it. Over the past 20 years, you see more employers trying to offer benefits like telecommuting that go to this work-life balance. Other trends include flex time where employees have a different schedule than 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you have children you need to pick up after school, that can be very helpful. Four-day, compressed work weeks are another trend.”

Time off is always important to employees and a trend is for businesses to allow employees to access that time off in a way that is better for them.

“Things like on-site daycare are hugely popular if you have young children,” Willis said. “Help with college tuition is another benefit that employees appreciate. Not only does that help them improve skills, but it makes them more broadly marketable. That is something can help employees feel good about themselves, as well as making them feel good about their employer.”

Other trends are onsite gyms, walking clubs, or help with weight reduction or smoking cessation. Free flu shots are also provided by many employers, something that can potentially cut back on days lost to illness.

Willis said employee assistance program related to wellness have seen a monumental shift in recent years. It can be alcohol and drug addiction treatment, marriage counseling or mental health counseling for stress, depression and anxiety.

“There has been a little cultural shift with how employers view that,” Willis said. “Twenty to 30 years ago, most employers weren’t doing much of any of that. There is not a stigma with mental health counseling like there was in the past.”

Another popular offering is a gap policy for health-care insurance. Because of Affordable Care Act of 2010, employers are forced to have better policies than they did prior. Certain things are covered. It eliminated pre-existing conditions, and children can stay on their parent’s policies up to age 26. Even after the ACA, there are still gaps in overall care. Health care is expensive in the U.S. Willis said companies can provide gap insurance or short-term disability for income replacement if someone is sick or has a child.

People are living longer, so health care is needed a lot longer time than in the past.

“Many of these expensive procedures prolong our life, but they are very costly,” Willis said. “The same thing is true with a lot prescription drugs. There are new drugs out there that do amazing things, but are super expensive even under an insurance plan. A gap plan is certainly something some employees need, but it really does come down to what someone can afford.”

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About Becky Gillette