Benefits and Compensation, Recruiting

4 Ways Employers Can Upgrade Their Health Benefits to Retain Workers

When it comes to holding onto talented workers during the Great Resignation, companies are reverting to a tried-and-true strategy: reimagining benefits. This time, they’re re-conceptualizing the employee health benefits they can offer to better recruit and retain talented employees.

To understand why health care is becoming a hot topic among business leaders, it’s important to understand why workers are leaving their jobs in high numbers. The Great Resignation has represented a relatively unique employee exodus in which knowledge professionals, spurred by pandemic-related burnout and the effects of widespread lockdowns, have reconsidered their working lives and are now looking for very specific characteristics from prospective employers.

And though inadequate pay, disrespect, and a lack of flexibility are commonly cited as the top reasons employees are putting in their notice, a Quest Diagnostics-commissioned study found that healthcare benefits and affordability are playing a major role in the competition for talented knowledge workers. The surveyed employees ranked health care and health benefits as the fourth most popular avenue for companies to recruit and retain talent.

Complications of the Remote-Work Era

To some degree, the workforce’s desire for flexibility has confounded employers’ thinking around healthcare benefits, as employees’ geographic distribution typically complicates the administration of health benefits. But employers will continue to contend with the push for remote work and flexibility; a Fortune poll shows that the ability to work anytime and from anywhere matters to 81% of potential jobseekers, who are willing to be tethered to a brand but not necessarily the brand headquarters.

Fair enough, but this wreaks havoc with traditional healthcare plans and packages.

One of the biggest snags is that the majority of health plans offered by large providers are limited to a geographic area or network. Consequently, remote employees may be at a treatment disadvantage if they’re unable or unwilling to travel to providers in network, and workers in rural communities might not be able to find in-person care at all. So they’ll be more likely to leave their jobs sooner to move to an employer that offers more relevant and innovative employee benefits around health care.

All these concerns are putting pressure on companies. As Pew research reveals, 43% of workers who have already joined the Great Resignation left because they didn’t like their benefits, so employers need to reframe their mindsets around offering the right healthcare benefits to get employees to stick around. When it comes to foregrounding a proactive mindset on healthcare benefits, below are a few ways even small employers can compete:

1. Accept that health care is viewed as an entitlement, not a benefit.

Given that healthcare benefits have become an expectation rather than lagniappe, it’s wise for employers to approach them as nonnegotiables. Most employees expect their employers to offer and cover health care, at least for them if not also for their family members. The good news is, as long as employees feel that premiums aren’t rising too rapidly and that they have viable choices of healthcare providers, they’re usually happy enough with their plans to let their healthcare benefits run on autopilot.

That said, workers who telecommute or live far away from their companies will likely have different employee healthcare benefits expectations but will still expect employers to make their health and wellness a priority. Organizations may have to juggle moving parts (e.g., the logistics around networks, telemedicine, and delivering care options) to make that happen, but it’s more doable now than before with technologies like remote patient portals and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)-compliant virtual medicine.

2. Understand which benefits employees really want.

Companies can no longer afford to assume they know what types of benefits will most suit their workers; instead, they need to gather concrete information on which plans will work best. Because employers have finite dollars to spend on benefits, they must ensure those benefits match the workforce’s needs.

For instance, some employee benefit levers—such as access to pet healthcare options—may be more appealing to job applicants than, say, coupons for groceries or free food. At the same time, on-site fitness facilities will no longer sway employees looking for remote-first employment.

3. Embrace the advantages of cross-border telemedicine.

The world of medicine was upended in so many ways by COVID-19, but one positive outcome was that physicians and other healthcare providers became more open to embracing telemedicine. Fast-forward to 2022, and the use of telehealth is 38 times higher than it was before March 2020, according to McKinsey & Co.

As such, virtual visits for a variety of conditions have become normalized. Companies can leverage this trend by looking for healthcare benefits that provide moretelemedicine benefit coverage components. Over time, telemedicine will likely become increasingly mainstream and will no longer fall under the nontraditional healthcare umbrella.

4. Expand beyond classic healthcare benefits.

Health care used to mean offering employees medical, dental, and maybe eyecare plans. Today, many workers expect more choices, including mental health-related benefits such as unlimited paid time off, generous bereavement policies, and access to specialized mental health and wellness programs. Case in point, the Fortune study showed that 73% of respondents wanted stipends to address their mental health needs.

Again, this reality opens the door for creativity and necessitates the tailoring of benefits. For example, some businesses might get more mileage than others out of unusual benefits like offering special employer-sponsored cash compensation to be used for babysitting. The key is for organizations not to copy their competitors’ strategies but to thoughtfully considerhow to retain employees given their organizations’ unique purpose and culture, plus their employees’ needs.

Among all the factors affecting job satisfaction, employee health benefits is one item HR teams can change. Though it may be challenging to overhaul employee benefits to reflect the needs of the job market, the rewards will be great for employers that stay open to the future of healthcare technology, from telemedicine to other innovative employee benefits.

Robin Antonellis is executive director of the New England Employee Benefits Council, a nonprofit organization committed to its members’ professional development. Antonellis is also cofounder of the Healthcare Benefits Leadership Collaborative, a collaborative of Boston’s most respected healthcare systems’ benefits leaders. Antonellis also was named to the Boston Women’s Workforce Council’s advisory board to support its efforts in closing Boston’s gender wage gap. A graduate of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, Antonellis resides in Belmont, Massachusetts.