In addition to raising concerns about physical health, the coronavirus pandemic has had a massive impact on our collective mental health. These effects don’t exist in a vacuum. Around 30 percent of employees say their work life became more difficult as a result of the pandemic, according to research from BMC Public Health.
Employees’ health needs must be supported for them to do their best. This is where HR leaders have a lot of power. Building a strong healthcare benefits package is the biggest step any leader can take to support their employees’ health and wellbeing, said Samantha Strube, vice president of people at Indianapolis-based software company Encamp.
What a Healthcare Benefits Package Must Include
- Medical, vision and dental insurance
- FSA and HSA options
- Paid sick leave
- Mental health support plans
- Fitness reimbursement
“As an HR leader, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we offer the most holistic and comprehensive benefits for all of our employees,” she said. “It’s a passion of mine because at the end of the day, healthcare is one of the most important things for our employees and their families. Especially now, we can not take these decisions lightly.”
More employers are recognizing how strong healthcare benefits can help strengthen their teams. Nearly 56 percent of employers plan to increase their spending on healthcare benefits packages, according to a 2022 report by health and security risk service company International SOS.
“We are heading into the third year of the pandemic. Health and wellness benefits are still top of mind for both employers and employees,” said Bill Gianoukos, CEO of Boston area-based healthtech company Goodpath. “When companies prioritize the wellbeing of their employees and provide innovative health benefits, they show their employees that they are not a one-size-fits-all kind of organization, and that they appreciate them and support their productivity and job satisfaction.”
“When companies prioritize the wellbeing of their employees and provide innovative health benefits, they show their employees that they are not a one-size-fits-all kind of organization.”
Health and wellness touch every part of your employees’ lives, so if you want them to feel healthy and empowered, build a benefits package that takes their whole personhood into consideration. Here is a breakdown of what an essential health benefits package should look like, as well as a few tips for creating a stronger, more attractive package.
When discussing health perks, medical insurance benefits likely come to mind first. With around 158 million Americans receiving their health coverage through their jobs, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data, it is also a bonus that many employees have come to expect from their employers. As of 2016, the Affordable Care Act also requires companies with at least 50 full-time employees to provide health coverage to at least 95 percent of their workers.
Medical, vision and dental insurance are the baseline for building a health benefits package. However, in Gianoukos’ words, insurance isn’t the be-all end-all when it comes to supporting employee health and wellbeing.
“Health benefits typically run through insurers, [which] minimizes some of the billing burdens on employers and provides employees access to a fully built network of unique specialists in different locations,” he said. “However, [that] can also be a barrier for employees getting access to care, as they consider what is in-network vs. out, getting referrals, and setting up appointments. Wellness benefits are regularly added by leading employers alongside insurance as an additional way to care for employees’ health.”
FSAs and HSAs
Leaders can help employees access and afford healthcare in a few different ways. Alongside traditional health insurance plans, employers can offer alternative payment support options in the form of health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs)
HSAs and FSAs let employees set aside an untaxed portion of their paycheck to help pay for healthcare procedures or services. The difference between HSAs and FSAs depends on what employees’ existing healthcare plans look like and how they plan to use the money, Strube said.
“HSAs are only an option with high-deductible plans and are best suited for folks who have minimal health care needs and are usually utilizing only preventive care services,” she said, explaining that funds can be used for anything from co-pays to diapers, and are the employees’ forever. “FSAs operate almost exactly the same as an HSA except it can be with a low-deductible plan and does not rollover,” Strube said.
If your HR team plans to implement HSAs or FSAs as a part of your healthcare benefits package, educate your employees about these programs, Strube said. Because these are less common than traditional health insurance plans, your employees might not understand how to use them at first.
“I’m so passionate about educating employees about the benefits of FSAs and HSAs, so that people don’t miss out on a great opportunity to leverage them to cover out of pocket expenses,” she said. “In fact, every time we go through open enrollment, I lead all of my orgs through ‘Insurance Jeopardy’ so they better understand all of the health care lingo.”
Paid Sick Leave
No federal regulations mandate employers to offer paid sick leave, though some states have laws ensuring employees are offered paid sick time. In addition, the Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers to grant their employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical situations. Still, without pay, sick or injured workers might feel pressured to return to work sooner than recommended, potentially putting themselves at further risk. Offering paid sick leave is an up-front investment, but it provides a necessary peace of mind.
“If an employee knows that they can take care of themselves properly, that reduces a lot of stress, which itself compounds illnesses.”
“As a mission-driven company aimed at improving quality of life, we know that proper rest and recovery are vital to improving health,” said Gianoukos. “If an employee knows that they can take care of themselves properly, that reduces a lot of stress, which itself compounds illnesses. A sensible, flexible plan shows that you see your team as humans. It gives them a vote of confidence in your care for them.”
Implementing a paid sick leave policy is only half the battle — you also have to encourage your employees to take advantage of it. Be intentional with the language around your sick leave policy, because it can do a lot to shape employee perspectives and empower them to take time off when they need it, Strube said.
“One thing I definitely think is important is what you call this leave,” she said. “I recommend calling it ‘Health or Wellness Leave,’ because it should be utilized also for mental health, [not just] when one is sick.”
Mental Health Support
If an employee has a broken arm, they’ll probably let their boss know and take time off to recover. But if that same employee is struggling with depression or stress, the stigma surrounding mental health issues may prevent them from getting the support they need.
Mental health is a vital, yet often overlooked, component of everyone’s overall wellbeing. If it’s neglected or not supported, the effects can bleed into an employee’s work life, causing distraction and burnout. Employers must be proactive about supporting their employees emotional wellbeing, and that means carving out specific perks to show them that their mental health isn’t an afterthought.
Taking steps to support mental health at work can take many different forms, from offering stress management workshops to building out an in-office meditation room where employees can go to regroup during the day. Many companies also adopt Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that connect employees in need with free counseling services so that they can confidentially discuss their concerns and learn to combat emotional stressors.
“We know that mental and physical health are connected. Offering holistic benefits through an integrative care approach is essential,” Gianoukos said. “Employees who are still remote or transitioning to hybrid work environments need resources and tools to help them to achieve a healthy work-life balance, support their mental health, and enable them to create better habits.”
Beyond fulfilling basic health needs, your employees will each have their own unique health goals. Whether it’s developing a regular stretching routine or building the strength to run a marathon, everyone’s wellness goals are different.
“I always recommend a fitness stipend because physical wellness looks different to everyone,” Strube said. “To one, it might be a Frisbee golf tournament, and to another, a membership to a yoga studio. Listening to and empowering your employees is the key here.”
“I always recommend a fitness stipend because physical wellness looks different to everyone.”
To go the extra mile, leaders can add features to their benefits packages that support every employee’s individual health journey. Big tech names like Microsoft and VMWare offer their workers fitness stipends to cover things like workout classes, massages, gym memberships and other programs or activities that contribute to overall well-being. While the $1,200 fitness bonus that Microsoft offers each employee may not be reasonable for newer startups, there are also many cost-effective ways to support fitness at work, such as partnering with local co-ed sports leagues or carving out time for in-office yoga workshops.
Unique Wellness Perks
What do yoga clubs, meal plan subscriptions, and onsite biometric screenings all have in common? They’re all unique wellness perks that employers can offer to go the extra mile for their employees.
Around 63 percent of job seekers listed benefits as the top deciding factor when looking for a job, according to research from Glassdoor. This means that companies have to elevate their health and wellness offerings not only to support their current employees, but to attract new ones. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, employees’ views on health and wellness have shifted, said Gianoukos.
“Before the pandemic, many corporate benefits packages included discounted gym memberships or fitness stipends, and employees enjoyed this perk,” he said. “This is not to say that companies are not offering these discounts and stipends anymore — many still do. But two years later, [employees] want more integrative and personalized care.”
Your team is totally one-of-a-kind, and your employees deserve perks and rewards as unique as they are. But when choosing add-ons to your standard health benefits package, make sure your employees have some input on what they need.
“When it comes to budgeting for benefits, employers should send employee surveys to get a sense of who would be interested in gym perks, and then see if the [potential] provider has different options and pricing packages for the company,” Gianoukos said. “The more tailored you can get in these offerings, the more effective they are, and the more likely they are to be seen by employees as something of real value.