Posted May 14, 2021 by Mark Perna
New data suggests that the employee-employer divide is wider than ever. Here are 4 ways to bridge it. Mark’s article, “Think Your Employees Are Happy? You Might Want To Double-Check That,” published at Forbes.com on April 20, 2021.
Happy employees make for a productive workplace—but after a year of pandemic, the workforce has never struggled so much with mental health. Employers are now grappling with two burning questions: Are my employees really happy? And, how much responsibility do I bear for their overall well-being?
If employees aren’t happy with their work environment, they’ll be looking elsewhere—and a projected imminent hiring boom would make that search a lot easier. Employers must reckon with ways to improve the sense of satisfaction among their employees—or face losing them.
Adding to that challenge is the fact that, with a multi-generational workforce that spans Baby Boomers, Gen-X, Millennials, and Gen-Z, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to giving your employees the kinds of benefits and care they really want.
MetLife’s 19th annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study, which interviewed more than 2,500 employers and 2,600 employees, highlights a growing divide between employers’ largely positive perception of what they offer—and what employees really think about it. The data suggests that employers often don’t realize that they are falling short of the benefits programs and workplace flexibility that employees actually want.
With 3 in 4 individuals feeling their employers bear a responsibility for their well-being, companies would do well to double-check their approach to employee happiness. The good news is that by embracing a few new practices, employers stand a greater chance of giving employees the kind of people-first workplace culture they’re asking for.
One of the employer-employee disconnects revealed by the MetLife study centers on benefits packages. The red flag is that two in five employees say their employer isn’t offering benefits or programs that currently support their well-being.
Today, employees are ranking benefits differently based on their age. The study finds that Boomers, for example, are increasingly prioritizing benefits related to their physical health—such as vision care. Meanwhile, younger employees, including Gen-Z and young Millennials, are more interested in benefits that positively impact their mental and financial health, such as legal services, student debt assistance and life insurance.
“The first step for employers is to take a critical look at the benefits they’re currently offering and ask themselves, ‘Do these offerings really meet my employees’ needs right now?’” says Bradd Chignoli, senior vice president, Group Benefits, MetLife. “It’s important for employers to recognize that employee needs are not universal and vary across the workforce depending on life stage, life experiences, priorities and how these can impact the holistic well-being of workers.”
The key, Chignoli says, is to provide benefits that go beyond the basics of medical insurance and retirement plans. Additionally, how companies communicate their benefits is equally as important as the offerings themselves. “When employees understand their options and how those options can protect themselves and their families, they’re more likely to thrive at work and in their personal lives,” says Chignoli. “Indeed, employees who say their employer’s benefits communications are easy to understand are 67% more likely to feel successful and 41% more likely to be productive.”
Just about every organization that could was forced to work remotely during the worst of the pandemic. One of the most startling finds from the study underscores just how differently employees and employers view their company’s flexible/remote work policies. While 81% of employers believe they are offering their employees a flexible work environment, a mere 28% of employees are satisfied with the solutions provided by their employers.
The definition of satisfactory flexible work also differs by generation. As a result of working from home, just over half of twenty-somethings said their work-life balance is better now than before the pandemic. Conversely, 75% of Boomers reported that struggles with boundary-setting and less opportunity to have casual conversations with coworkers have led to lower satisfaction with their work.
MetLife’s research suggests that in a post-pandemic world, older employees may ultimately desire to return to the office when possible, while younger workers will want to continue to work from home or choose to work in a hybrid way that provides them with maximum flexibility in how, when and where they work.
“I think it all comes down to flexibility in context,” says Chignoli. “Regardless of whether employees are required to be in-person or have the ability to work remotely, employers need to do their best to provide flexible work arrangements—such as flexible hours or shift schedules—that allow their employees to address their personal needs.”
The bottom line? Employers need to be more flexible in defining what flexible work looks like.
Another area where employers can proactively bolster their employees’ mental health is to actively urge them to take time away from work. Time off is essential to avoid burnout. The MetLife study found that more than one-third of all employees feel stressed at least half of the time while working—which can have a serious detrimental effect on their productivity.
Employees who took more PTO amid the pandemic were more likely to say their physical, mental, social and financial health improved over the past 12 months than those who took less. Yet, since the pandemic shut down travel and made it difficult if not impossible for most people to travel, many have seen their paid time off (PTO) balance balloon over the past year.
That’s why even at companies which offer “unlimited” PTO policies, “employers should find ways to encourage their employees to utilize their PTO as a way to help thwart burnout and improve their mental health,” says Chignoli.
Employees will know you mean it when you put your money where your mouth is. Some companies are now offering bonuses—from extra days off to actual cash payments—when employees book a full week of vacation. Don’t just encourage time off—reward it.
With so many people still working out of their homes, managers have naturally assumed a greater responsibility for their employees’ well-being. The trouble is, many don’t feel equipped to handle the recent downturn in their team’s mental health.
“Our research found that only 37% of employers provide training to managers on managing stress/burnout and supporting mental health, and only 36% provide training on recognizing the signs of stress/burnout and mental health issues,” says Chignoli.
Managers themselves want more comprehensive mental-health training, particularly in the areas of managing direct reports’ work-life balance (69%) and supporting direct reports’ overall health and well-being (69%). “Employers need to make sure this is a serious consideration in the year ahead—especially since the majority of employees agree that having a supportive manager would help them feel happier (72%) and reduce their stress (70%),” Chignoli says.
When managers are equipped with the right tools to handle the increasing mental health challenges workers face, everyone will benefit.
It’s never been more crucial to bridge the employer-employee divide with an approach that puts people first. While the immediate restrictions of the pandemic may be loosening in many areas of the country, its less visible marks remain on the workforce. The pandemic has impacted individuals differently—and employers need to be flexible enough to adapt to the lived experience of their employees. They should also consider that the policies and programs that worked in the past will need to change for the future.
By working toward a positive culture centered on benefits, flexibility, PTO and mental health resources, companies can help their team feel happier at work—bridging the divide between employer and employed and staying competitive in an ever-changing world.