Benefits Trends Survey 2021: The changing benefits landscape

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Benefits Trends Survey 2021: The changing benefits landscape

There has been a seismic shift in the world of work in the past year – and the health and benefits landscape is evolving as a result.

Willis Towers Watson’s (WTW) latest Benefits Trends Survey (BTS) 2021 shines a spotlight on the dynamic changes in the health and benefits space and the influences behind the reshaping and reinvigoration of strategies, including changing work patterns, priorities, preferences, and company-wide objectives. This complements the WTW Emerging Trends in Health Care Delivery Survey released earlier this year.

The BTS 2021 research, which was conducted amongst almost 200 UK employers, identifies key areas of emerging and accelerating focus steering health and benefits change – and highlights the barriers that exist in delivering on this transformation.

For example, digital advancements, enhanced employee experience, increased choice and flexibility, focus on Value on Investment and inclusivity, fostering social connection and better resilience, and creating competitive offerings all emerged as top priorities for companies.

These strategy changes were driven largely by external influences such as increased focus on inclusion and diversity (I&D), cited by 76 per cent of businesses, increased remote working (64 per cent), increased focus on Environmental, Social, and Governance (52 per cent) and tight labour markets (52 per cent).

However, in order to fulfil strategy objectives, businesses need a joined-up, robust, formally-articulated benefits plan, which is lacking for almost two thirds (60 per cent) of companies today.

Businesses are acutely aware of this challenge and intend to take decisive action, with 78 per cent of employers planning to have customised their benefits strategy in the next two years.

Here, we take a closer look at the themes and trends emerging and becoming more pronounced in the health and benefits arena.

Going digital

Improved employee wellbeing and experience of benefits are the top measures of success for employers’ benefits strategy – and digital processes and technology platforms are increasingly seen as key facilitators.

BTS 2021 revealed that more than half (59 per cent) of employers are at an early stage of digital adoption – with 73 per cent planning to enhance their digital strategy in the coming years.

Differentiating themselves from their competitors and creating a more personalised benefits experience for employees were the main motivators behind this commitment to digital enhancement.

Indeed, 34 per cent intended to focus on a digital approach to benefits, including use of mobile apps and social media, whilst 41 per cent of companies said that enhanced tools and technology to support employees when choosing and using benefits is a priority.

Furthermore, almost half (46 per cent) of employers are planning or considering adopting a digital hub that houses all benefits.

With digital processes becoming an everyday expectation of employees, accelerated by the growing reliance on technology resulting from pandemic constraints, the focus has shifted to providing a user-friendly, accessible, convenient, and streamlined tech-focused benefits offering.

This not only applies to access to benefits, with more than a third (37 per cent) of companies committed to creating a consumer-style ‘shopping experience’, in which employees can digitally purchase benefits, perks and other products, but also extends to the delivery of wellbeing solutions.

For example, in the Emerging Trends in Health Care Delivery report, almost all (89 per cent) of organisations expected the use of telehealth to grow in the next two years, with 51 per cent citing the expansion of wellbeing apps as a key priority for their organisation’s health and wellbeing strategy.

Data-driven decisions

There is a growing awareness around the pivotal role that employee-centric insights play in the effective creation and deployment of a benefits strategy.

BTS 2021 revealed that half of respondents (50 per cent) were looking to enhance management information regarding their benefits and programmes.

This is further evidenced by the Emerging Trends in Health Care Delivery report, which found that 60 per cent and 56 per cent of organisations planned to use data and analytics in the next two years to understand employee perceptions/utilisation of benefits and trends in employees’ health and wellbeing, respectively.

Basing decisions around current and future benefits provision on insightful, targeted metrics helps to maximise employee engagement, satisfaction and ROI. But the accumulation, aggregation, and utilisation of data is currently limited.

Just 15 per cent of BTS 2021 respondents said that they use surveys and focus groups to understand their employees’ wants and needs and only 28 per cent currently use data and analytics to understand the effectiveness of programmes.

Much progress needs to be made to unlock the potential benefits of data-driven decisions but simple measures, such as health screenings, employee surveys, and effective absence tracking, coupled with key metrics, such employee engagement statistics and claims data, can help identify prevalent health risks, open up opportunities for targeted interventions and improve employee outcomes.

Enhancing employee experience

Employee experience is increasingly seen as the foundation block of a successful benefits strategy.

Employee experience, communication and engagement are intrinsically linked; it is only through an enhanced employee experience, bolstered and supported by effective communication, that optimal employee engagement and appreciation can be realised.

Indeed, focusing on improving the employee experience was cited as a key priority by 80 per cent of BTS respondents, with 56 per cent saying this was their least effective area of benefits.

The survey results would suggest a disconnection between intent and action. Just 10 per cent actively use communication customised to the organisation or utilise the latest communication techniques, such as apps or social media, and less than one in ten (9 per cent) support employee understanding and decision-making when it comes to benefits selection through online tools, modelers and external providers.

Furthermore, only one quarter of employers (27 per cent) said that their benefits portfolio addresses the individual needs of their workforce, a quarter (26 per cent) offer significant flexibility and choice in benefits, and just over half (53 per cent) offer market competitive benefits.

The first step for enhanced employee experience is listening to the needs and wants of the employee population. This will give them the critical insights to reshape the benefits provision to ensure it is meaningful and fit-for-purpose and offers the requisite flexibility and choice to be valuable.

Secondly, ensuring communications are accessible to all demographics, employers can achieve optimal employee experience and maximise employee engagement. These steps will lead to companies being better positioned to gain the competitive edge – which is all important in a tight labour market.

Building resilience

Emotional wellbeing was high on the corporate agenda pre-pandemic but the challenges of economic uncertainty, job insecurity, health concerns and social disconnection have exacerbated this already prevalent workplace issue.

In fact, eight in ten (81 per cent) employers said that they were concerned about stress, burnout, and mental health issues, according to BTS 2021.

As emotional wellbeing has become increasingly under the spotlight, the focus has shifted from remedial to preventative care, with emphasis now placed on maintaining good mental health, through increased resilience, using tools and measures to better manage stress and cope more effectively with positive and negative emotional triggers.

By taking this proactive approach to emotional wellbeing, employees will be better equipped to find balance, deal with life crises more effectively and maintain stability.

The benefits of a more resilient workforce are clear – from higher productivity to reduced sickness absence – but companies need to make significant improvements in this area in order to reap them.
More than one third (39 per cent) of BTS 2021 respondents admitted that support around emotional wellbeing has been a weakness for them over the past year.

The covid pandemic may have impacted companies’ ability to fully support workers or successfully cater for increased need but bolstering emotional wellbeing has gained renewed vigour, with 65 per cent of companies intending to enhance mental health support as part of their benefits offering in the next two years.

Glance at the future

The latest Benefits Trends survey results demonstrate a clear commitment to the enhancement of companies’ benefits portfolios and improvement of the wellbeing of employee populations.

In a progressively competitive, conscientious and diverse market, benefits are increasingly seen as a differentiator and leveraging tool.

Whether companies achieve these objectives remains to be seen and only time will tell.