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February 2, 2021

Research Findings: COVID-19 Has Given Benefits Leaders A Boost in Confidence

Artemis Health

Artemis Health recently published new research on the goals, motivations, and challenges of benefits leaders (and, by extension, their advisors). In 2019, our research revealed that just 18% of self-insured employers believed that they were “ahead of the curve” in their benefits offerings compared to peers or competitors. What a difference a year makes. 

In 2020, when we asked benefits leaders, “How would you describe your organization’s benefits offerings in comparison to your peers or competitors?” we got a different answer. The challenges and pressure tests of 2020 seems to have given benefits teams more confidence in their ability to offer innovative, comprehensive benefits. 

Pie charts showing employers who view themselves as "ahead of the curve", 2019 and 2020.

Benefits leaders gave us a number of reasons they felt they were ahead of the curve: 

  • Offering more choice of health plans for employees 
  • Their quick, decisive response to COVID-19 
  • A focus on new, innovative benefits programs 
  • Their ability to attract top talent 
  • Expanding affordable care for employees and their families 

Open responses also illuminated their reasoning. 

Ahead of the curve: 

“Our medical/RX trend has consistently been 2.5% points below our peers. Our program offerings are also leading edge compared to our peers.

  • Employer with 10,000-24,999 employees

Keeping up: 

“We carefully monitor our competitor’s benefits to make sure we are taking care of our employees. We want our best employees to stay.”

  • Employer with 50,000+ employees

Falling behind: 

“Due to lack of motivation from upper management and not having a clear path due to [the] COVID situation.”

  • Employer with 5,000 to 9,999 employees

When we look closely at which types of organizations feel they’re ahead of the curve, we notice some trends. Larger organizations with 50,000 or more employees are the most likely to say they are “ahead of the curve.” This will come as no surprise to most benefits leaders. Larger companies mean more people on the benefits team and more resources at their disposal. On the other hand, smaller companies were the most likely to report that they are “falling behind” peers and competitors when it comes to employee benefits. 

COVID-19 responses have also contributed to the boosted confidence we’re seeing among benefits professionals. There’s nothing quite like a crisis to bring people together, clarify priorities, and galvanize action. In open-ended responses, a number of survey participants touted their COVID-19 strategies, measurement, and planning as one reason they felt confident they were offering great benefits for employees. 

Another interesting trend that clearly ties to the COVID-19 pandemic is a renewed focus on employee health and well-being. It seems to us that corporate America is undergoing a “caring revolution.” Employees and their families are under tremendous strain this year, and their employers are responding by offering better health benefits and well-being solutions.

Last year’s research paper revealed the top organizational goal to be employee productivity, while benefits professionals said “helping my organization meet its goals” was their primary motivator. This year, however, companies (61%) and HR leaders (51%) are fully aligned on the priority of “improving the health and well-being of employees.” 

Essentially, we’re seeing that both top HR leaders and their larger organizations are “rowing in the same direction” in 2020 and beyond. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought focus and alignment to their employee benefits strategies. Does this mean corporate America is becoming more caring? 

One quote from our open-ended responses really stood out to us. 

“During this turbulent time, more than ever, I need to figure out how to take care of our employees.” - Director/Senior Director at organization with 50,000+ employees

Employee benefits leaders, much like the physicians and healthcare workers providing on-the-ground care for their employees, are in a “caring profession.” They are genuinely concerned about employee health and safety. This year, their desire to care for employees is reflected throughout their organizations, and their benefits priorities have shifted accordingly. Many are newly focused on employee stress, depression and anxiety, and other behavioral health concerns that have cropped up during the pandemic. 

However, employee productivity is still a top success measure for benefits teams. When asked to select their top three answers, benefits leaders told us this is how their success is measured. 

Bar chart showing the top three measures of success for benefits leaders.

In 2019, 24% of benefits leaders said their success was measured by their ability to increase employee productivity. In 2020, 40% of them now believe they are measured this way. For many of them, this is likely tied to the remote work policies that swept the nation in March. A number of states asked businesses to close and allow employees to work from home. Tech companies like Google and Microsoft have extended their remote work policies to keep employees safe, with Microsoft even allowing employees to do so on a permanent basis. 

Remote work always raises questions of employee productivity. Traditional organizations and supervisors often believe that productivity will drop if employees work from home. However, recent research suggests just the opposite: 

“Ninety-four percent of 800 employers surveyed by Mercer, an HR and workplace benefits consulting firm, said that productivity was the same as or higher than it was before the pandemic, even with their employees working remotely.”

This is good news for HR leaders being measured on employee productivity. They were instrumental in writing and implementing remote work policies, with some adapting over the course of one weekend in March. Their efforts to balance health and safety with productivity seem to be paying off. 83% of employers say they plan to extend or modify work from home policies even after the pandemic. 

For many organizations, remote work isn’t a possibility. Large employers in manufacturing, retail, utilities, transportation, and hospitality don’t have the luxury of sending employees home with extra computer monitors and office chairs. For those employers, employee health and well-being is safeguarded with personal protective equipment, physical distancing where possible, pods and A/B schedules, and deep cleaning procedures. 

When we asked survey respondents how their success is measured, there was one notable standout. While they are still concerned with managing the cost of employee benefits, its growth was far outpaced by measures of employee health and well-being. 

Survey respondents believe their success is now tied more closely to employee health and well-being than to benefits efficiency. Respondents also reported that they weren’t measured as much on providing data-driven insights or measuring program performance as they are on employee well-being and satisfaction. 

Want to learn more from our 2020 research study? Get the full research paper here. 

You can also watch our 2-minute demo video to see how Artemis Health is helping benefits leaders and their advisors achieve their goals. 

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