Despite signs of an economic turnaround, fewer than half of American workers said they are satisfied with their jobs, according to a recent Conference Board survey, and nearly 25 percent of respondents said they do not expect to remain with their current employers next year.

No company wants to be held back by mass employee migration just as renewed profits are on the horizon. So what can employers do to help keep employees satisfied and productive as the economy improves? Voluntary benefits may be a meaningful part of the answer to this critical question.

The current job climate
According to recent articles by Business Week and Market Watch, the U.S. economy appears to be strengthening, from a 5.6 percent growth spurt in the last quarter of 2009 to a swelling in U.S. payrolls by 162,000 workers this year, the biggest growth in three years. Although the country is not out of the recession yet, economic indicators remain positive. And according to the U.S. Department of Labor, total unemployment benefit rolls fell by 255,000 to a seasonally adjusted 4.5 million — the lowest since December 2008. If these trends continue, the U.S. economy could soon see job creation and sustained growth, which would be a huge relief for an American workforce that has awaited improvement in workplace stability and rewards.

In recent months, American workers have been itching for better growth potential and compensation. Echoing the Conference Board findings, a Gallup-Healthways Work Environment Index shows American workers rated their work environments with a score of 48.2 out of 100 in March. Based on reports such as this, it is plausible to think that inattentive companies could experience massive attrition throughout their organizations when the economy fully rebounds.

The role of voluntary
Offering voluntary benefit plans may allow competitive organizations to take proactive steps to reward and retain valued workers before the turnaround. By using voluntary benefits, companies can effectively and economically expand benefit options, adding valuable choices for employees without incurring additional costs. Employees opt in and pay for the benefits they want at a reduced rate compared with individual plans, because voluntary benefits are offered through the employer.

Such voluntary group benefits as life, vision, and dental coverage can demonstrate a company’s long-term investment in its workers by helping ensure that employees and their families remain healthy, productive and financially secure — even in tough economic times. Vision and dental insurance also provide the benefit of preventive medicine. Many serious illnesses can be detected during regular eye exams and dental checkups, protecting workers from potentially lengthy and costly hospital stays or absence from work.

The current voluntary benefits climate
Companies are catching on. According to LIMRA’s U.S. Worksite Sales Study from the third quarter of 2009, voluntary benefits grew 7 percent, an exceptional rate for such a difficult economic period. In addition, 2009 was the fourth consecutive year that voluntary benefit sales exceeded the prior year’s sales.

Voluntary life insurance has been a particularly strong seller. Sales have continued to rise despite a down economy; in 2009, life insurance sales totaled nearly $700 million.

Vision insurance also made rapid gains over the last year, thanks to need. According to the Vision Council of America, an estimated 120 million Americans are afflicted with vision problems of some kind. The Council also reported that for every dollar spent adding vision benefits, $7 is returned in increased employee productivity.

LIMRA’s report also showed increases in dental coverage, most likely because of the overall health benefits offered by good oral care.

By offering voluntary benefits, companies allow employees to tap into what is most important to them at a time when employees are taking a much more active role in the selection of their benefits. A recent study by Hewitt Associates found that 45 percent of workers opted not to default to the same coverage they had the previous year, but instead actively chose their benefits.

Employees are taking close stock of their work environments and deciding what they want to do once the recession lifts. Now is a great time to talk with employers about a positive outlook in the economy. Encourage them to plan for the future while meeting employees’ more immediate needs today with voluntary benefits. They are an economical way to show appreciation for employees now — and may even help stem the tide of attrition once the economy fully recovers.

Erich Sternberg is the president of Starmount Life Insurance Company and AlwaysCare Benefits. He can be reached at 888-729-5433, ext. 5.