The Pandemic’s Impact on the Future of Employee Benefits

Podcast: Line on LeaveIn this episode of The Line on Leave, we discuss The Hartford’s 2021 Future of Benefits study with Jonathan Bennett, head of group benefits at The Hartford. Tune in as we discuss the silver linings that emerged from the pandemic in the areas of employee benefits, workplace culture, mental health and employee engagement.
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Laura Marzi: Hi everyone, I am Laura Marzi. Thank you for tuning into the latest Line on Leave podcast from The Hartford. Today we’ll discuss the findings of The Hartford’s most recent Future of Benefits survey. These are trends we’ve been tracking for well over a year, pre-pandemic until now. What we’re finding is that some the adaptations employers have made are here to stay, as well as the value that their employees now place on certain benefits.
Here with us today to discuss those trends, as well as provide context, is The Hartford’s Head of Group Benefits, Jonathan Bennett.
Jonathan Bennett: I am excited to be with you to share more about our Future of Benefits study. We're very excited about the project, about the learnings that we've taken away, and the trends that we've begun to identify as people have made their way through what has been an unprecedented, certainly, time in our history, and employees facing off into some very unique and different challenges.
We conducted the first research as part of this study back in late February, early March of 2020, when the pandemic really was just something we were beginning to hear about, and got a lot of good insight into how people were feeling about their benefits under circumstances that really predate all that has taken place over the last 12 to 14 months. We then got a second round of research conducted in June of 2020, and that revealed a tremendous amount of insight about how things had changed, and changed in many cases quite dramatically. And now we've been able to field a third round of research here just in the last couple of months, and seen how it has evolved once again, as we head into 2021 and beyond.
Laura Marzi: That's terrific. So I was looking at some of the statistics. It sounds like the Future of Benefits research in June, 2020 showed a decline in how employees were feeling about benefits and the value that they put in that trust with their company to make sure that they were making the best decisions on their behalf. It looks like there's been a shift and a positive shift that has occurred to get basically employee sentiment back up to kind of this pre pandemic levels. And I was wondering if you could talk about that for a minute.
Jonathan Bennett: I'm sure that there are quite a few reasons behind that. Certainly now having come this far into the benefits cycle, employees have really spent time trying to understand what are their benefit options? How can they think about preparing for themselves and their family in the most effective way using the tools that are in front of them? And I think employers have certainly taken steps to add new benefit options to their programs, giving employees more choice, giving them more education about how to make the right choices. And as a result, we see a growing confidence among employees as to how they can build a benefit program that best suits their individual and family needs.
Laura Marzi: We talk a lot about getting back to basics and those foundational benefits that people need when life kind of throws some curve balls at them. So do you think that a lot of what's happened over the past year has helped people just have a little bit of context around the value of the types of benefits The Hartford offers?
Jonathan Bennett: We've come to think of the bedrock benefits that employees are now looking for when they think about the options with their employer. These would include things like Group Life and Group Disability. These are core products that have been around for many, many years, and many employees have had access to them. But we would add to that now, increasingly, a hard look at Short-term Disability, other products and services, like Critical Illness or Hospital Indemnity or Accident products. These are the things that really began to stand out as options that they had access to, things they could take advantage of in their benefit program with their employer, and now have begun to realize with the pandemic raging around us just how valuable those products and services can be as they think about their own needs.
In our Future of Benefits study, we found that 75% of the employers who responded expressed interest in expanding their leave benefits beyond those that are required. We found that to be a fascinating and certainly a very significant number. And I think that clearly, as we have seen in the last 12 months, there are huge demands.
There's also been, I think, a wave that's come across the country, an understanding about Paid Family and Medical Leave. This has been brewing in our country now for quite some time. We've seen a number of states that have taken action to try to put these programs in place. And increasingly now, recognition when you need to be away from work to care for a family member. It could be one of your children, it could be a parent, it could be a partner or a spouse. Whatever the circumstance, the opportunity for you to be away from work, not have to forego your earning, but be able to provide the care necessary to those around you has become increasingly important. And now, through some of these programs and increasingly company provided options, we're beginning to see more employees gain access to these valuable benefits, and just how much they do appreciate and value them as they put together their own program.
Laura Marzi: We talked to some employers who have given us a lot of feedback in terms of everything that they've done for their employees over the past year. And even going into some of these fundamentals that you were just talking about, I'm wondering if you had any thoughts around the ideas, just in general, around things like increased flexibility or employee assistance programs, or really just the overall pandemic response.
Jonathan Bennett: More than anything, when we survey employees, they talk about needing more flexibility and more options to help them to navigate what has been a very complex time in their lives. For many, a tragic time as well in their lives. And having employers who are providing that kind of support really does engender a level of loyalty and commitment. And I think employers certainly want to be that kind of a place to work. They see that as being instrumental in creating the kind of talent and workplace environment that they believe is going to make their company, their enterprise successful as well. And so we do see that is elevating, it is improving. With every passing body of research that we conduct, we're seeing just a real lift there.
One of the items that we saw in our study, the Future of Benefits, has been that employees really do value paid time off and options and flexibility for being away from work in times where they may need to care for a family member, whether that be children or parents or a spouse or partner. In those moments, however, they also expressed to us in the study that there are still some concerns, a stigma perhaps attached to using some of these time away, leave options that they have available to them through their employer.
Laura Marzi: Yeah. It's kind of a nice silver lining out of everything that we've struggled with, in terms of trying to be supportive to each other as carriers and to employees kind of meeting them where they're at. Another thought I had around bedrock benefits. It's funny, when we were talking about attracting and retaining employees, it used to be all those kinds of perks. Could you have break rooms with ping pong tables? Could you bring your pets to work? And now it's really getting back to those fundamentals
Jonathan Bennett: For many years, as employers sought to create the kind of work environment that could attract and retain the best talent, there were lots of benefits and services added to their portfolio. Some of these had workplace capabilities. They were about the perks and the benefits that would be available to them inside their building; dry cleaning, free meals, things of this sort, all sorts of ideas for ways to have people who are excited to be in the workplace.
Here we are in 2020, and nobody's in the workplace. And people are very concerned about their physical safety, the health and well-being of their family in their community. And the benefit picture turns dramatically to the things and the services that really can bring you security in those moments. That has to do with access to medical care. That has to do with the financial support necessary to take advantage of that medical care. That has to do with how you will support your family were something very tragic to occur.
So with all of that, the benefit story has really shifted in the last 12 months back to what we think of as these bedrock benefits. How will you provide under these circumstances of stress? And areas like Voluntary products, Critical Illness, Hospital Indemnity, Accident products have really become central to how people think about ways in which they can have cash in benefit available, particularly if they're using say a high deductible medical plan, where in that moment of financial stress, this provides real support and benefit for them to cover that gap.
Laura Marzi: I'm just wondering if you could just talk about the topic of mental health and that becoming more of a forefront during the pandemic.
Jonathan Bennett: The Hartford's Future of Benefits study revealed that 70% of employers have seen an increase in the use of employee assistance programs. It really speaks to the kind of stress and anxiety that has been brought about through the pandemic over the last 12 months. And it has revealed, I think in a very meaningful, profound way, personal way that many people deal with these kinds of emotional challenges, mental challenges, where they are grappling with the pressures of work and with have life, family and more broadly issues across society. And, employers need to find ways and are looking to find ways to support their employees in addressing, and in dealing with those challenges.
I think it's an important thing that employees have access to those assistance programs, and that employers are encouraging and providing opportunity for those to be used and used effectively, certainly in the support of their workforce. I think we'll see more of that. There is certainly an increasing awareness of those challenges.
There were a number of instances where I believe that people really began to see as children were being schooled at home, and parents were grappling with the homeschooling needs and the daycare, the childcare that they had to provide while trying to be remote workers, and stay fully engaged in their career and in their obligations to their employer.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. So, many other things around isolation, being away from family and friends, and countless other challenges that we face during this time, have really demonstrated that it's important that there be strong of support for mental health, that we provide the resources necessary, and the time and opportunity for employees to take advantage of those.
The Hartford's Future of Benefits Study has clearly identified a trend among employers to think more holistically about the needs and welfare of their employees. Clearly there are factors around medical coverage, and so forth and additional benefits, but increasingly now, we hear more about mental health and awareness of the needs that employees have. It is part of a productivity move, certainly that employers are thinking about how do they keep their workforce engaged, healthy in all manner, able to perform at their highest level in support of the company's goals and objectives.
All of these things come together. And, I think employers are recognizing that they can have a greater role. There are even other things that are clearly now demonstrated. Employees who face an injury, whether that be in the workplace or outside the workplace who are seeking to recover, and go through treatment programs physically will do far better if they have the right level of mental support as well. Anxiety and fear, concerns such as those have a detrimental effect on that physical healing process. And, by bringing about a benefit program and a support program that allows you to address all sides of recovery, employers will really aid themselves in their employees by returning to work more successfully, more productively and able to contribute.
Laura Marzi: I think a lot of folks listening today are going to wonder what you saw in the Future of Benefits survey in terms of an acceleration in the use of digital tools. Did it ramp up the way that you thought, especially when you're thinking about enrollment season, and do you think that the trends that you saw in 2020 are going to continue into 2021?
Jonathan Bennett: The Hartford's Future of Benefits Study clearly showed that during the course of 2020, under the circumstances of the pandemic, there was an acceleration in the use of digital tools and capabilities. It is a trend that has been brewing in the benefits arena, as well as many other places now for a number of years. But, this was a moment of real acceleration and one that we expect to continue now into the future.
There were fewer and fewer instances where employees were able to access their benefit, education and materials through the very traditional onsite meeting format, that one time not long ago been a very commonplace. Now all of these benefit options, content materials, training insights were being made available online digitally. That won't be the exclusive format, but it is increasingly now the most common format. And, we're seeing more and more companies go in that direction.
There's a number of benefits that come with that, it's available 24/7. There's an opportunity for greater customization to the unique circumstances of the individual employee, their personal condition as a family, as an individual. Those things can be more tailored and they have greater opportunity to learn in-depth about the benefit options that are being made available to them. With all of that now online and easily accessed, we think digital is the way that we will see more and more employees accessing their benefit programs, and employers are going to be demanding that from their benefit providers as a core competency, in a way in which they would expect their provider network to engage with their employees.
Laura Marzi: I'm wondering what you're hearing from brokers, and I'm wondering what you're hearing from employers just in general, in terms of what they think about benefits in the future and what they're seeking to try and drive.
Jonathan Bennett: We listen carefully to our employer customers, and our brokers who are sharing information and insights across the market with us on a regular basis. Much of what we've heard from them aligns very closely to what we've seen in our Future of Benefits Study. They're concerned about their workforce, they're concerned about their communities. They're thinking carefully about what changes this may bring about. They are recognizing that changes are, in fact, occurring and necessary in order to best support the workforce, their employees in times of need. They see the products and the benefits that are available in the marketplace, and are also very anxious and excited to find new ways to promote those, to educate the employees about those options and to really help them take advantage of it.
Laura Marzi: You've been in the industry for a long time, you've seen a lot of changes. This is probably the most profound shift you've seen as a, as a leader in an insurance company. Wondering how you've had to personally adapt working among the pandemic. And I was wondering, if you think about what you're looking forward to most in a time, maybe perhaps when we returned to office, any thoughts there?
Jonathan Bennett: I feel quite fortunate that I work in an industry, and for an employer that has made it quite seamless for me to pick up my things and on one day, head home, and to be able to work quite productively from there through this trying, very difficult time. But, what I realized right away is that not everyone has that circumstance. There are many essential workers for whom that was not an option. How much trust and confidence we had to place in all of them, that they would continue to provide the care, and services and things that are just necessary for life to go on for the rest of us. There is a real debt of gratitude that we owe those people in those circumstances for what they have done for all of us to keep things moving forward in times of real dramatic stress, and in some cases, quite tragic circumstances.
I've had to change my leadership approach, how I communicate, how often I communicate, and certainly through the medium that we use to communicate. It's been a challenge. It certainly, I think has been one that I look back on now and view as a valuable learning and development opportunity as a leader, one that I will continue to use and deploy in the years ahead, but it has been a real accelerant in many ways and a challenge to overcome. And, I'm looking forward to, like so many people, having an opportunity to be back a little bit more free and engaging with colleagues. Hopefully far less concerned about the risk to oneself and others around us, and really having an opportunity to think about all the great opportunities we have to grow our business and to engage with one another in doing so.
Laura Marzi: We had a really good discussion today. I really appreciated the depth that the Future of Benefits survey offered in terms of trends around key things. Like, recognizing the desire for paid leave isn't going to diminish just because the pandemic moves on. You talked a lot about fostering an open and inclusive work culture. You talked about bedrock benefits and making sure that those types of benefits are communicated really effectively to meet people where they're at.
As you're thinking about what you've learned over the past year, there's lots of silver linings, lots of new ways we're all going to be working together. I was wondering if you could just offer two or three observations on what the Future of Benefits survey taught you
Jonathan Bennett: We've learned a great deal from the Future of Benefits Study over the last year, trends and insights about employees and employers. There have been certainly insights that have revealed difficulties and challenges, but also positive things that have affected the workplace. The relationship between employers and employees, opportunities to gain access to new benefits and products and services that can help employees to navigate a complex world, a complex environment.
And as we move beyond the pandemic and think about the work environments that we are building, that we hope to see across our economy, there will be many things that will persist around Paid Family and Medical Leave, around options for support in mental health, employee assistance programs, as well as the bedrock benefits that make up a great benefit program for an employee. We're excited about where this is headed. We think that The Hartford has a great role to play, and we're anxious to engage
Laura Marzi: Thank you for those insights, Jonathan. It’s certainty been quiet a year, and thank you to our listeners. As always if you like what you hear, please subscribe to our podcast and share it with your colleagues. You can also learn more about The Hartford’s Future of Benefits study at our Employer Insights page which is located on
You can also visit us at for more information and resources to help you manage absence in the workplace. Until the next time, please be well and stay safe everyone.
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This informational material is subject to change as The Hartford continues to receive guidance from states and municipalities. It shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for legal compliance with respect to an employer’s business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute The Hartford’s undertaking on a company’s behalf, or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that an employer’s business operations are in compliance with any law, rule, or regulation. Employers seeking resolution of specific legal or business issues, questions, or concerns regarding this topic should consult their own attorney or business advisors; and employees should continue to consult their employers’ Human Resources or other employment benefits department for guidance on the application of any law, rule, or regulation.
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