It is an article of faith in the business world that benefits are very important to workers, especially younger ones. A WillisTowersWatson survey examines employee attitudes around the world toward benefit issues. (WTW Survey) This survey covered responses from over 31,000 workers in 22 countries. WTW (which I guess is better than WTF) identified several trends that are impacting employee perceptions, including a shift to defined contribution arrangements; continued growth in health care costs; public program financing issues, which pressure private employer benefit plans; contrasts between the needs of older and younger workers; consumer technology changes; a focus on health wellness and an emerging concern about financial wellness. One primary employer reaction to several of these trends is to spur worker activity and weight loss and to reduce workplace stress and improve employee mental health. Financial stress, which can lead to mental and physical health problems, is real. In the US, 45% of employees say they live paycheck to paycheck, and even in countries with very healthy economies the same is true–in Canada and Germany, for example, it is 40% and in China 32%. In addition, in most nations large minorities of people could not come up with the equivalent of $2000 in an emergency. In almost every surveyed country, worker expressions of satisfaction with their financial situation have declined, even as economic growth has been good. The result is a perception by two-thirds of employees that they will be worse off in retirement than their parents were. And many believe they will work longer before retiring, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as not working often leads to a loss of purpose and depression among older people.
Financial and health well-being is important to businesses because productivity declines are clearly linked to stress and poor health. The survey found that the 60% of employees who are worried about their short and/or long-term future have significantly more absences and report being less focused on their work. Only 20% of employees say they have no health or financial worries, while 42% say they have both. In general, a majority of workers say they are happy with current benefit plans, with the highest percents expressing satisfaction with their health benefits (this may reflect national health systems in many of the countries, where out-of-pocket expenses are low) but would like more flexibility. A majority in most countries say they would make a higher monthly contribution for more generous health benefits, more generous retirement benefits and guaranteed retirement benefits. When asked how they might allocate spending across a variety of benefits, core health and retirement benefits come in highest, but things like paid time off and wellness programs rate highly as well. In regard to wellness, employee satisfaction has dropped with existing offerings and there is a perception that they have not worked to encourage healthier habits. But I think this may reflect the difficulty of getting employees to take responsibility for their own health; no one can design a “fun” program that magically makes people want to exercise more and eat healthier. And it is hard for wellness programs to work when participation is still over under half of the employee population. And while financial incentives can help, they create an attitude among workers that they will participate only if rewarded. Penalties may actually work better. One big picture item to note from the survey is that employees often look to their employer to help with these significant life issues, rather than government or their own individual initiative. That is big task for companies.