In 2020, January 1 brought us not only a new year but also a new decade. What a difference ten years can make. Unlike the last decade, this one comes in with a booming economy and a voluntary benefits industry with an abundance of offerings that is advantageous for both employees and employers.
Building on the growth and diversification of product offerings over the past ten years, the voluntary benefit industry is poised for expansion and increased adoption over the next decade, as talent attraction and retention continue to a top priority for employers.
In today’s increasingly competitive labor market, benefits are a key driver for employee satisfaction and recruitment. Benefit packages should include traditional insurance, retirement and non-traditional benefits, in order to attract and retain employees. Statistics illustrate the importance of benefits. While 41 percent of all workers say they are likely to look for a new job with better benefits, that percentage increases for the younger generations in the workforce, with 57 percent of millennials and 65 percent of Gen Zs reporting the same, according to Unum. That’s a significant indicator for employers and benefit advisors to note when considering benefits packages, as nearly 40 percent of today’s workforce is made up of Millennials and Gen Zs.
The last decade saw the voluntary benefits industry expand from essentially insurance-related products to include a variety of non-traditional voluntary offerings, driven by employees’ desire for more customized benefits. At the beginning of the decade, voluntary benefits were predominantly insurance-related: gap coverage, short-term disability, dental, hospital supplemental, cancer and critical care coverage, and vision care. Among the early non-traditional benefits were legal insurance, pet insurance and employee purchase programs. As the decade progressed, other benefits came on the scene, such as identity theft protection, student loan benefits, elder care services, foster care assistance and financial wellness benefits.
Eastbridge Consulting’s 2019 U.S. Voluntary/Worksite Sales Report shows that the traditional voluntary benefits industry has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 5 percent over the last 10 years. In 2017, Eastbridge reported that two-thirds or more of employers providing voluntary products in their benefits package were offering three or more traditional voluntary products to their employees and, among these, about 25 percent offered six or more. And the trend toward providing more products is even more pronounced, combining both traditional voluntary benefits as well as non-traditional products, with 30 percent of the employers offering six or more products.
Looking to 2020 and beyond, there are four trends in voluntary benefits that we can count on:
1) Continued Growth
As the previous decade has shown us, health care and life insurance benefits are no longer enough for employees. Many have chosen to add various voluntary products to their employee benefits package, mostly at their own expense, in order to have benefits that meet their diverse desires and needs.
With millennials and Gen Zs taking over more of the workforce, and wanting benefits “their way,” the voluntary benefits industry will grow as employers include additional voluntary offerings and as employees choose to add more to their benefit package.
Providing benefits that appeal to a multi-generational workforce can be challenging, as employees in different age groups and stages of life view some offerings as more desirous than others. But with the ability to improve their benefits strategies by providing voluntary benefits at no- or low-cost, employers can take advantage of the variety of offerings and beef up their benefits package.
2) Even More Customization
Customization will continue to be paramount and there will be new offerings added to the voluntary benefits portfolio. A study in 2019 showed that “standard” voluntary benefits are popular, with most employers offering dental and vision (75 percent), supplemental life insurance (75 percent) and accidental death and dismemberment insurance (60 percent). But while traditional voluntary benefits remain standard offerings, it’s the non-traditional ones that employees are finding most attractive in employee benefits packages.
Popular types of voluntary offerings are the work-life balance, lifestyle and financial wellness benefits, so expect more of these on the horizon.
We are seeing evidence of this among employers who are adding specialized, unique employee benefits as well as among benefit providers who are expanding their offerings. In 2019, Dentons began offering breast milk shipping for staffers travelling on business; Starbucks bolstered fertility and included surrogacy benefits; and MassMutual added coverage of gender identity procedures and expanded fertility benefits. On the carrier side, MetLife recently announced a non-traditional direction for the company by acquiring pet health insurance administrator PetFirst.
3) Student Loan Repayment Benefits
There is no question student loan debt repayment benefits will be added to more companies’ benefits packages over the next few years. According to the Federal Reserve System, student loan debt has reached an all-time high of $1.6 trillion. It’s at a crisis state — that is more than our nation’s total credit card debt.
While only 8 percent of employers are currently offering this benefit, more than one-third of employees (and 55 percent of millennials) say it is a “must-have, according to a MetLife study.”
Student loans aren’t just a concern of the recent grad, or even the 20- and 30-somethings who are still making payments on those loans. They are also a concern to the baby boomers who co-signed many of these loans.
4) Financial Wellness Benefits Will Blossom
Financial wellness may be the most critical benefit for employers to address, not only because it is one that is top-of-mind with employees, but because of the effect employees’ financial stress has on the company itself. Employers today realize that their employees worry about money while at work, which has consequences in terms of productivity. Half of employees have experienced stress about their finances in the past year and this number is even higher for Gen Z (76 percent) and millennials (62 percent).
Employees’ financial stress can lead to distraction at work, absenteeism and high turnover which has an impact on the employer’s bottom line. One in three employees admit to being less productive at work because of their financial stress, according to MetLife.
In the years to come, we’re going to see more benefits that help employees deal with their day-to-day financial health. Offerings that will be more readily available next year include instant pay benefits, payroll advances, low-interest installment loans and automated, payroll-deducted savings accounts that help employees living paycheck-to-paycheck with unexpected expenses without resorting to high cost debt. We’ll also see more employers will adopt benefits like employee purchase programs that help employees purchase consumer products and services through payroll deduction when they are unable or prefer not to use cash or credit, and an expansion of program options like travel and elective medical.
It’s an employee’s market today. Employees are looking for better pay and better benefits. And in order to attract talent, employers are having to step up the game. The future is bright in 2020 and in the next decade for voluntary benefits – both for the employers who offer them and for the employees who choose them.
The views of the author of this article do not necessarily represent the views of Gradifi. We make no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained here. Readers should consult their own attorneys or other tax or financial advisors to understand the tax, financial and legal consequences of any strategies mentioned in this article.