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Remote work and a difficult labor environment are making benefits that have gained traction during the pandemic more popular than ever, according to recent data, and that shift could make hiring and retaining workers easier for small-business owners — if they know which benefits to offer.
Here are three perks that an increasing number of companies have invested in, plus three low- or no-cost options that one industry pro says also could help small businesses keep workers happy.
Free or less expensive telehealth services
According to a survey of 293 organizations by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, about 14% of employer benefits plans have added telehealth services due to the pandemic, and about 35% have reduced or eliminated the cost for employees due to the pandemic.
"Over half of those people told us it was a permanent change, and the remainder told us they were considering it," says Julie Stich, the vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. Mental health benefits have also become more popular, she added.
A different survey of over 2,500 human resources professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM, found a drop in company-sponsored wellness benefits that required in-person participation during the pandemic, but the provision of stress-management resources spiked 11%, personal or life coaching benefits increased 7% and meditation or mindfulness programs went up 7%.
More flexible paid time off
Many employees now expect paid sick leave, "especially in light of what's happened with the pandemic," Stich says.
Paid family leave also has become more common than ever in the past five years. More than 1 in 3 employers (39%) offered paid parental leave, according to SHRM, and 31% offered paid family leave. The percentage of employers offering paid maternity leave beyond what short-term disability insurance or state law required jumped to 53%; 44% offered paid paternity leave.
Flexible work hours
Almost half of employers have rolled out flexible work hours to accommodate child care needs due to the pandemic, and a third have done so to accommodate elder care needs, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey.
Caregiving is a crucial part of life for many, and offering flexible work time to accommodate it became more common during the pandemic, Stich says. "I think employees are going to want that moving forward," she says.
These types of policies go beyond typical employer coverage offerings. Options can range from pet insurance to identity-theft insurance, for example, Stich notes, and employees typically pay the full cost through a payroll deduction but get a group rate.
"So it can be definitely more affordable, and interesting benefits can be offered this way," she says.
Employee assistance programs or EAPs
"That can be something that's generally not terribly expensive and that could provide good services and good options for employees that need that," Stich says.
"EAPs used to be all about maybe trying to handle addiction issues. There's so many other things EAPs handle now, including financial assistance and career counseling, and trying to help with your teenagers, or legal assistance; they run the whole gamut."
Organized volunteer work
"Something that employees value, and it's been more of a value I think over the last, I would say, three to five years, is the whole idea of socially responsible volunteer work," Stich says. Gathering employees to help a charity as a team sends the message that the employer cares about what’s going on in the community, she adds.
Stich says surveying employees about the benefits they have could be a good idea. Finding out what employees really want and value can help small businesses manage the mix and cost of benefits.
"Everybody's life is different, right? So what you might think is not going to be important might still be important," she says.