More than half of employers in the accommodation/food services, information technology, transportation and warehousing industries intend to ratchet up non-medical benefits for employees in the next three years. These expansion plans aren’t limited to large companies: Small businesses are among the most enthusiastic promoters; nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of companies with 2 to 99 employees say they intend to boost their non-medical offerings.
The source of this information: MetLife’s 14th Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study, which highlights increased opportunities for employers to enrich “the benefits experience” of their workers. To that end, they’re not only availing workers of more non-traditional protection products, but also enhancing educational initiatives to increase employee engagement in benefits offerings.
Why the big push? The ability to gain a competitive edge in the hunt for talent is a big factor. As the MetLife study notes, today’s workers, most especially millennials, have a burgeoning list of “must-have” job benefits, such as critical illness, disability income and pet insurance, among other protection products. A growing number of employers recognize, too, that generous benefits offerings also are good for the bottom line, as financially and physically fit workers are more productive and loyal.
Hence the heightened focus among recruitment-savvy employers on financial health and wellness programs, initiatives that have been well received. Again, Gen Y stands out here: 3 in 10 millennials (as compared to 23 percent of their boomer brethren) “appreciate” employer incentives encouraging them to “take steps” to improve their financial well-being. The differential is even more pronounced when workers are asked about their gratitude for reminders to “save versus spend” (26 percent of millennials vs. 15 percent of boomers); and for employer educational/communications initiatives about good savings and spending habits.
As employers expand their benefits portfolios, they’ll be looking increasingly to third-parties — not least agents and advisors active in the worksite space — to help in facilitating plan adoption, implantation, education and engagement. “By tapping into the expert guidance of enrollment communication firms, brokers, consultants, and other third-party partners, employers will be better equipped with a mix of digital, telephonic, and in-person tools and resources to help their employees make confident, informed benefit decisions,” the study observes.
To gain further insight into the MetLife survey findings and key takeaways for advisors, LifeHealthPro interviewed James Reid, executive vice president and head of regional and small business solutions at MetLife. During a 30-minute phone conversation, Reid explored 5 key benefit trends at small employers — encompassing legal services, data security, financial wellness, enrollment and plan customization — that advisors will need to keep close tabs on in the coming years. The following are excerpts.
More small businesses are incorporating into benefits packages legal services that help workers deal with issues respecting certain life events, including estate planning. (Photo: Thinkstock)
LifeHealthPro: For how long has MetLife been publishing its employee benefits trends study? What insights do you seek to gain from the research?
Reid (pictured below): We've been publishing the study annually for 14 years. We provide a view on trends we're seeing, trends that are important both from a MetLife and industry perspective. This year's report is especially significantly for us, as we're celebrating in 2017 our 100th year in the group benefits business. The good news is that we foresee continued growth of voluntary benefits in the small business market.
LHP: The latest study flags a rise in legal services among small businesses. What do these plans cover and what accounts for their increased popularity?
Reid: Plans to deal with legal issues respecting certain life events — buying a home, getting married, having a baby or caring for an aging parent — can be a big help to employees. Workers across generations are signing up for these prepaid plans, but interest is notably pronounced among millennials; many of them view such services as a “must-have” job benefit.
Of adults that are offered a legal plan through work, nearly 70 percent of those ages 21-34 — the millennials — are enrolled. The Society of Human Resource Management finds that 25 percent of companies now offer one or more legal benefits. That's about a 13 percent increase since 2006.
LHP: What do the legal services include?
Reid: These vary from company to company. MetLaw, which provides legal services from Hyatt Legal Plans, offers access to a national network of 14,000-plus experienced attorneys. They can advise on such matters as wills and estate planning documents, real estate, debt issues, traffic defense, family law, power of attorney, identity theft and elder care.
Launched last September as part of MetLife Simply Smart Bundles, which includes a combination of dental and vision insurance, the prepaid group legal services plan is designed for small and midsize businesses with 10 to 99 employees. It’s the same plan we previously offered to larger employers, but the new solution will be available as an exclusive, voluntary option with the Bundles package, with no minimum participation requirements.
Companies are increasingly availing workers of benefits info through a mobile app, an option that nearly 6 in 10 of the millennials MetLife surveyed see as an effective tool. (Photo: Thinkstock)
LHP: Let's turn to data security, which the MetLife study identifies as a rising concern among employers and workers. What can small employers do to address this issue?
Reid: Employers can shore up their digital support chain by moving to a single benefits carrier to limit the exposure of employee data. With the average cost of a large-scale data breach pegged at about $4 million, enhancing data security through a single carrier in the delivery of benefits — for record-keeping, enrollment, plan design, claims, billing, reporting and other benefits functions — is a smart investment.
Related: 8 benefits trends to watch in 2017
And not just for protecting against losses from a data breach. Companies also must consider their capacity to recruit and retain talented workers, a top benefits objective of 4 in 5 employers. That objective can be undermined if the employer-employee relationship is impaired because workers have less confidence in their company's ability to protect benefits data.
LHP: The MetLife report notes that workers who feel in control of their finances are less likely to postpone preventive medical care; and that employees who enjoy financial and physical wellness will exhibit greater vitality and on the job. So should we expect greater adoption of these programs among employers?
Financial wellness programs are key to helping employees manage their personal finance situations; however, most employers still aren’t offering them. Only 31 percent of businesses we surveyed in our 2016 study said they offer such programs, down from 39 percent the prior year.
LHP: How do explain the decline in program adoption during the past year?
Reid: We don't have data on what's causing the percentage dip. What we can say is that many employers plan to help reverse this trend in 2017, as they recognize reduced financial stress improves employee productivity and, ultimately, the bottom line. But to improve program adoption, greater employee education and engagement needs to take place. That will require the active involvement of employers and partnering carriers, benefits brokers and consultants.
LHP: The MetLife report also points to changes underway in benefits enrollment? What's going on there?
Reid: Seventy-one percent of employers we surveyed say that by working with a benefits enrollment firm, they can improve communications about, and employees' understanding of, medical and voluntary benefits that provide financial protection. This is an area that many of our distribution partners are investing in to ensure they drive adoption of employee benefits.
Some companies are also availing workers of benefits info through a mobile app, an option that nearly 6 in 10 of the millennials we surveyed see as effective tools. Whatever the method of delivery, education plus engagement equals higher enrollment. That’s a key finding of the report.
For the foreseeable future, says MetLife's Reid, artificial intelligence will play a complementary role to that of the employee benefits broker or consultant. (Photo: iStock)
LHP: Let’s move on to customization, the 5th trend you’ve highlighted from the study. Why is personalization of employee benefits so important?
Reid: It’s not a one-size-fits-all world anymore. Employees wants benefits that meet their unique needs. Seventy percent of the workers we polled say benefits that can be customized would boost their loyalty to their employers. These companies will emerge clear winners in the talent war.
The benefits needs include a diverse range of protection products. Nearly 3 in 10 —28 percent — of all workers we surveyed across generations agree that critical illness insurance is a must-have benefit. The sentiment also holds for 14 percent of millennial employees in respect to pet insurance. Employees also want communications about their benefits customized to them.
LHP: To the extent that more work is needed to better tailor employee benefits, is one bottleneck the carriers themselves? Might workers be looking for certain permutations of products insurers don't yet offer?
Reid: The good news is that carriers have anticipated and reacted in a much more agile and nimble fashion to market needs than in prior years. That doesn't mean the products can’t be still better tailored. But the industry has made significant progress over the past decade in availing workers of a greater choice of modular products that can tailored to fit individual needs.
LHP: To what extent do you foresee artificial intelligence be adopted in the employee benefits space? For example: In cases where employees don't want to be working with a live advisor to discuss and structure benefits. Might we see greater use of automated, digital advice to help guide employees in their benefits elections?
Reid: Technology is advancing the industry’s ability to quote, enroll, service and modify employee benefits plans. Digital solutions are emerging in the insurance space, as they have in other areas of fintech, such as robo advising on investment options. But for the foreseeable future, I see AI playing a complementary role to the benefits broker or consultant.
One additional bonus trend we're watching is the growth of employee benefits in the small business market. We forecast this space will expand by 4 to 6 percent in the coming year. Small businesses are a big area of focus for MetLife, as we’ve been active in this market for over 40 years.
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