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January 19, 2021

New Research Reveals the 2021 Goals and Priorities of Benefits Leaders

Artemis Health

2020 is a year none of us will soon forget. It was uniquely disruptive to everyday life, and the same is true for the employee benefits industry. Employers and their advisors struggled to adapt to new ways of working, new employee health challenges, and a brand new disease. Artemis Health teamed up with Employee Benefit News/Arizent to discover what makes benefits leaders tick. We asked about their goals, motivations, organizational priorities, and what changed for them in 2020. 

Our survey revealed a number of surprising findings, and we’ll share a few with you today. Keep an eye on the Artemis blog for more research results in the future. Now, let’s dive into some interesting findings. 

Self-insured employers’ benefits goals. 

The survey asked benefits leaders, “What are your organization’s top benefits goals?” They are laser-focused on employee health. 

Bar chart showing employee benefit goals for organizations.

For 61% of respondents, their company is most concerned with improving employee health and well-being. Other high-ranking organizational goals included improving employee satisfaction/engagement (55%), and increasing employee productivity (49%). 

While productivity was of highest importance in 2019, this shift to well-being is a surprising one in a year when many employees found themselves struggling to be productive while juggling childcare, working from home, and the distractions of a stressful time. Employers clearly understand and sympathize with the difficulties of boosting productivity in an uncertain year, and they have adjusted their goals to match the conditions in the wider world. 

The fact that employee well-being is increasingly important to benefits leaders this year is no surprise to Hassan Azar, benefits leader. He told us, “The topic of employee stress has become a constant theme in conversations with my peers at other companies, my co-workers and senior leaders. Corporate leaders are worried about the impact of the pandemic on employees who may be isolated, under stress, struggling with anxiety or coping with the new pressures of parenting and remote schooling."

What are the implications for on-the-ground benefits leaders when nearly all organizational goals are of higher importance this year? It’s simple. Benefits teams are being asked to do more and more. 

There were just two industries where this focus on employee health and well-being didn’t hold: retail and the tech sector. Respondents from these industries reported that their organizations were more focused on improving employee productivity and satisfaction. Tech industry respondents also highlighted the competitive nature of their industry with a much bigger focus on reducing turnover than other sectors. 

Employee benefits professionals also believe these priorities will continue to grow in scope over the course of 2021. Most believe employee health and well-being will continue to be a top priority for their organizations, with employee satisfaction and productivity close on its heels. 

Chart showing benefits priorities expected to shift.

One crucial note: A renewed focus on employee health and well-being in 2021 is directly linked to the pandemic. Both benefits leaders and their organizations believe it is their primary responsibility to safeguard employee health. COVID-19 has clearly impacted how benefits leaders are approaching their priorities. 

These findings illustrate something we’ve known all along: HR and Benefits leaders truly care about employees and their families. You’ve heard the old adage that the most important asset of any organization is its people, its “human resources.” Benefits teams believe this wholeheartedly, and their roles are uniquely focused on the human side of what makes a company successful. This caring is stronger than ever in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The safety and health of employees is what keeps them up at night and what motivates them (along with a strong cup of coffee) in the morning. 

Even organizations that have suffered financial losses, uncertainty, or reductions in workforce due to the pandemic have renewed their focus on employee health. One respondent shared:

“We have had to step our initiatives back a bit with COVID, but at our heart remains the health of our employees.”

Benefits leaders are concerned not just with employees who have been infected with COVID-19, but also those who aren’t getting other needed care during the pandemic. The CDC shared that as of June 2020, an estimated 41% of U.S. adults had delayed or avoided needed healthcare due to the pandemic. Employers are concerned about these members in their populations, and they have stepped up their efforts to provide alternative points of care as a result. One option seeing gains in 2020 is the long-underutilized telemedicine program.

According to national consulting firm Mercer, employers are taking this opportunity to educate members on their virtual visit options. 

“Responses to a poll on Mercer’s US Health News website suggests that many companies (69% of respondents) have communicated directly with employees about using telemedicine specifically to limit trips to healthcare providers during this pandemic, and another 15% say that they have not communicated this, but the health plan/telemedicine vendor has done so.”

Another key headline from our research: benefits cost savings and cost management isn’t as big a focus for individual respondents. When asked about what’s important to their company, 54% said cost management would be a higher priority this coming year. However, when asked about their personal motivations at work, just 5% said saving the company money was important to them (compared to 15% in 2019). 

Comparison from 2019 to 2020 on primary personal motivation of benefit leaders.

This suggests that while benefits professionals are well-aligned with their organizations on the importance of employee health, they don’t see eye-to-eye on the need to control rising benefits costs. With just 5% of benefits leaders feeling motivated to save their company money on employee health benefits, it begs the question: how are employers going to continue paying the rising cost of coverage, now estimated at nearly $20,000 per employee? 

You can see that compared to other personal goals and motivations, employee health and well-being once again reigns supreme at 52%. This response was seen from survey respondents at all levels of their organizations, from C-suite executives and top leadership to regional benefit managers. Once again, we see the human side of human resources is really driving employee benefits goals and strategies. 

These are just some of the findings from the survey; each one and more are explored in the full research paper. Access the research here.

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