In employee benefits… what was once unique has now become commonplace

The workplace is starving — employers for employees, employees for time. How a progressive benefits program can stop the hunger.

Today’s employees want to know how employers will enhance their work experience and help balance their work and personal lives.

In fact, according to Aon Consulting’s study, America@Work 2000, respondents across the U.S. said the top factor in their commitment and loyalty to their employer is whether they believe that management recognizes the importance of their personal and family lives. The survey also revealed that stress plays a major role in reduced commitment, which directly relates to achieving work/life balance.

For the second year running, Canadians have also said that companies’ recognition of employees’ personal lives remains the strongest reason to be committed to an organization, according to the Canada@Work 2000 study. The study found that a growing number of respondents (29 per cent) rank work/life harmony as the first or second most important factor in taking a job. More than 69 per cent indicated that their organization had demonstrated increased efforts over the last year to support work/life needs.

As employers strive to help employees achieve work/life balance, it is no wonder a lot of creative, unusual benefits are becoming increasingly popular. In fact, these nontraditional benefits will be mainstreamed into more traditional plans — especially the benefits that are aimed at helping workers save time.

Time starvation is becoming increasingly prevalent among busy workers. A report issued by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization concluded that Canadians put in some of the longest working hours among industrialized nations, an average of 1,732 hours in 1997, the most recent year studied. Savvy employers will combat employee burnout — and enhance quality of life — by offering non-traditional benefits.

Here is an inside look at some of the up-and-coming benefits that are gaining popularity:

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2000 Benefits Survey found that four per cent of employers polled offer concierge services. Among companies with 5,000 or more employees, that figure jumps to 15 per cent. Offering concierge services can mean having an onsite concierge to fulfill employee needs such as securing tickets to a play, making dinner reservations, etc. Alternatively, it can mean providing an online service to handle employees’ personal tasks, such as vacation planning, helping with meals and groceries, shopping, errands and event planning — even bill disputes and car repairs.

Offering back-up or emergency child care is a growing trend. A recent survey by Hewitt Associates, LLC, found that while 10 per cent of employers have traditional child-care centres, 15 per cent now offer emergency child-care programs. Workplace Vitality reports that back-up child care is growing at a rate of 40 to 50 per cent per year as compared to just 13 per cent per year for traditional child-care centres (Sept./Oct. 1998).
Progressive companies are realizing that providing emergency care not only helps employees, it directly affects the bottom line. Child-care arrangements with non-centre providers break down an average of eight to 10 times per year — whether for illness, emergencies, or prescheduled events such as school holidays. Absences stemming from child-care issues can cost employers an average of $6,000 per employee annually, reports ChildrenFirst.

This trend is evidence that emergency care is something employees need and want.

“We conducted a needs assessment and discovered that a great number of our employees need emergency child care. And, the impact is being felt,” said Bernadette Fusaro, vice-president of Work/Life Strategies, Merrill Lynch. “Since we launched the first centre in New York with Children’s Discovery Centres, employees have come to depend on them. They are grateful that they do not have to take vacation or sick days because of a child-care situation.”

While the benefits to the community of corporate volunteer programs are obvious, it is only recently that companies have begun paying close attention to the internal benefits organizations derive from sponsoring such programs. When a company gets its employees involved in charity work, it sends the message that the organization is a part of its community. Business is more than just about making a profit, and that the company supports the outside interests of their employees. Internal improvements such as reduced turnover, increased team building, stronger consumer support and enhanced corporate image are just a few of the by-products gained from giving employees the chance to give back to the community.

It is no wonder that companies are adopting a social conscience by standing solidly behind community service and creating new programs to enhance their corporate images. A growing number of these companies are placing a greater value on employee volunteer programs as a resource for achieving strategic business goals. A new survey released by the Washington, DC-based Points of Light Foundation, Corporate Volunteer Programs — A Strategic Resource: The Link Grows Stronger (1999), shows a significant trend to incorporate programs into overall business plans and corporate mission statements.

The survey found:
•81 per cent of those polled connect volunteering to their overall business strategies, up from 31 per cent in 1992;
•48 per cent make volunteer programs part of their business plans, up from 19 per cent;
•100 per cent say volunteering makes for healthier communities;
•94 per cent say it increases employee morale;
•100 per cent say it enhances corporate image; and
•97 per cent say it improves teamwork.

“An ounce of prevention…” is the buzzword for today’s health and wellness benefits. Health club membership is becoming an increasingly popular perk. In fact, membership in a health club is a perk that most job seekers would like to be offered from their next employer, according to a 1999 survey conducted by the outplacement firm of Lee Hecht Harrison.

A growing number of employers are also offering programs aimed at reducing employees’ stress levels. Managing employee stress levels can lead to lower rates of absenteeism, happier employees and a healthier bottom line.

Programs that focus on employee well-being include: stress management programs, counseling services, courses in time management, and child-care/elder-care referral and information systems. A study on rising health care costs by the Conference Board of Canada found that Canadian organizations are embracing the wellness concept. About 52 per cent of respondents reported having a wellness program for their employees. In 1993, only 33 per cent of organizations reported offering these types of programs.

According to recent research by Thomas Garman of Virginia Tech’s National Institute for Personal Finance Employee Education:
•54 per cent of the workforce worry about their debt;
•53 per cent are dissatisfied with their financial condition;
•34 per cent rate their financial stress from high to extreme; and
•33 per cent admit their money worries hamper job performance.

These workers are costly to their employers — lower productivity, greater turnover and absenteeism, overuse of health-care resources, more accidents and lower morale. Nearly half of these workers report that they spend, on average, 20 hours per month at work dealing with money matters — equaling one-fourth of their total hours at work. Garman estimates the overall annual loss in worker productivity to be 20 per cent, or $9,000 per financially troubled employee.

Because financial security is a common concern for today’s employees, companies are providing financial assistance and education. In fact, the Hewitt Associates survey found that 86 per cent of employers are providing investment education for employees, up from 59 per cent two years ago. Through expanded financial and legal assistance, employees can get help with home buying, estate planning, retirement planning, investment planning and debt management.

Although there are a variety of ways employers can support their employees who are interested in adopting, the most common benefit has been to provide reimbursement for financial expenses. In fact, in a trend that is expected to continue, in 1999, 31 per cent of employers offered adoption reimbursement benefits, versus 26 per cent in 1997 and 15 per cent in 1992, according to the Hewitt Associates survey. Many companies also offer adoption assistance through their company-sponsored resource and referral network. This enables employees to access information about the adoption process, referrals to adoption agencies and adoption legal services, and additional support throughout the adoption.

Pet concerns, similar to child-care or elder-care issues, can affect worker productivity. Many people consider their pets to be part of the family — sometimes their only family. A survey conducted by the American Animal Hospital Association found that 55 per cent of dog owners consider themselves parents to their pets. While pet insurance is now offered by just one per cent of companies, it ranks among benefits growing in popularity, according to the SHRM survey.

Employers continue to test the creative waters as they build their array of benefits. What’s next? No one knows for sure, but as employee-starved employers strive to recruit and retain time-starved employees, chances are benefits will be aimed at saving time and enhancing quality of life.

Ann Vincola is a founder of the Alliance of Work/Life Professionals. She can be reached at (617) 867-9175.

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