As with so many aspects of our lives, employee benefits have undergone massive changes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following six areas have been at the forefront of the developing needs of employees — and likely will continue to evolve.

  • Virtual health care
  • Remote work
  • Caregiver benefits
  • Mental health access
  • Prescription drug policies
  • Retirement education

Virtual Health Care

As early as April 2020, the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury were encouraging virtual health care to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Today, almost all employers provide telehealth options. According to a report by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, 98% of responding organizations offered virtual health care. In addition, nearly half of those employers have reduced or eliminated cost sharing for telehealth during the pandemic.

Virtual health care offerings commonly include:

  • Primary care
  • Mental health services
  • Treatment for substance use disorders
  • Prescription refills
  • Physical therapy

Virtual health care will almost certainly be a lasting change in benefits. Research by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company indicates growing popularity among both physicians and patients. The McKinsey research also shows interest in hybrid usage of virtual and in-person services, and even virtual-first health plans in which a patient’s first point of contact with a provider is virtual.

With more data on utilization and associated costs forthcoming, you should have the opportunity to target virtual care services toward your employee population.

Remote Work

The pandemic brought on a sudden expansion of remote work, with an estimated 50% of the U.S. workforce working remotely at some point since March 2020. Many companies implemented this option for the first time at the start of the pandemic, with little to no preparation and a sudden need for new workplace policies around flexible schedules and remote work. Despite the unexpected transition for many organizations, remote work is another trend that will likely play a lasting role in the future of work.

Employees have made it clear that they want to retain flexibility in where, when and how they work. A 2021 study by staffing firm Robert Half revealed that one-third of employees who switched to remote work during the pandemic would rather quit than return to the office full time. More than half of all responding employees wanted a hybrid arrangement that combined in-office and remote opportunities.

Remote work will be vital to many industries for attracting and retaining workers. However, employers should be aware of new workplace considerations that can come with remote opportunities, as noted in the Littler Workplace Policy Institute’s 2021 WPI Labor Day Report.

When you craft your remote work policies, be sure to consider:

  • Tax implications for you and interstate (or international) employees
  • Time/overtime recordkeeping
  • Workers’ compensation laws
  • Cybersecurity and data privacy
  • Employment agreements

In addition to the above policies, you should consult with legal counsel on accommodation requests and discrimination laws in all states in which you hire workers. Given the long-term expectations regarding remote work, it is worth taking the time to assess your policies and make sure you are following all applicable laws and best practices. 

Caregiver Benefits

The WPI Labor Day Report also notes that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on caregivers. Millions of workers have scaled back hours or dropped out of the workforce altogether to care for young, ill or elderly family members. While remote work and flexible scheduling have become part of caregiver benefits for many employers, others are going even further in rethinking their offerings.

A survey showed that:

  • Three in five respondents plan to increase child care benefits
  • Two in five respondents plan to increase elder care benefits

Caregiver benefits that have seen increased implementation or promotion since the start of the pandemic include:

  • Dependent care flexible spending accounts
  • Employee assistance program (EAP) caregiver support resources
  • Child care subsidies
  • On-site child care
  • Elder care resources like short-term counseling, housing and financial education, and referral services

Many employers are also making use of less formal ways to help employees who double as caregivers, including:

  • Supporting employee resource groups where colleagues can share advice and emotional support
  • Posting caregiver educational resources on company intranet sites, and in newsletters, human resources departments, employee bulletin boards and other areas with high visibility
  • Hosting virtual or on-site fairs featuring local caregiving experts and organizations

As millions of caregivers potentially look to reenter the workforce in the years ahead, the right caregiver benefits can help position you as an employer of choice.

Mental Health Access

Another notable change is a focus on increasing access to mental health services, as noted in the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2020 Employee Benefits Survey.

Since the start of the pandemic, many employers have expanded access by:

  • Relaxing or eliminating eligibility requirements for mental health benefits
  • Reducing or eliminating cost sharing for mental health benefits
  • Adding a mental health component to virtual health care
  • Placing more emphasis on mental and emotional well-being in wellness programs

The digital media outlet The Hill reports that the pandemic has amplified a nationwide mental health crisis, with more than 50 million new cases of depression and anxiety. In addition, a survey by the online therapy company Talkspace revealed that 40% of respondents said stress could be a factor in leaving their job.

To help employees improve their mental health, employers have been adding or expanding mental health benefits like:

  • In-network options for psychologists and psychiatrists
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy programs
  • EAPs with confidential counseling
  • Mental health apps that aim to reduce stress, improve sleep and teach skills like meditation

Mental health issues will remain a priority for years to come, making these benefits a vital part of improving the long-term well-being and productivity of employees.

Prescription Drug Policies

Accessibility is a key consideration for prescription drug plans as well. Throughout the pandemic, many employers have changed processes regarding prior authorization and quantity limits.

Prior authorization refers to medication that requires approval from a plan or insurer to verify the medication is:

  • Medically necessary
  • Appropriate for a patient’s diagnosis
  • The best option in terms of efficacy and cost (e.g., A plan might require participants to pay more or all of the cost for a brand-name medication if there is a less expensive, equally effective generic alternative.)

Quantity limits, typically based on Food and Drug Administration guidelines, are intended to:

  • Encourage appropriate use of medication
  • Discourage overdosing or sharing of medication
  • Save on cost and waste when medications are overprescribed

With some individuals having a harder time seeing doctors or getting medication due to the pandemic, employers have reduced hurdles by:

  • Waiving prior authorization requirements
  • Extending time allowed under prior authorization periods (e.g., For a medication that typically requires prior authorization every three months, the time may have been extended to every six months.)
  • Increasing quantity limits

Examining data related to prescription drug costs and health outcomes during this time of increased accessibility can help you determine whether the change should be a short-term measure or a long-term trend.

Retirement Education

Stock market volatility at the start of the pandemic made many employees rethink their retirement options. Some left or lost their jobs sooner than they had planned. Others delayed retirement to build up more savings.

Retirement choices have major implications for workplaces in terms of career mobility and succession planning, not to mention the personal impact on employees. As a result, more employers are increasing their financial education and wellness benefits, according to an October 2021 CNBC article.

Retirement education topics commonly include:

  • Saving, allocation, accumulation and decumulation strategies
  • Debt management
  • Disability
  • Retirement health care costs
  • Long-term care

The Society of Actuaries also recommends helping employees understand the three major types of retirement risks:

  • Economic (e.g., inflation, interest rates, financial markets)
  • Personal (e.g., longevity, housing, relationship changes)
  • Unexpected (e.g., fraud or theft, significant illness, reduction in government benefits)

Financial education can be provided by your own staff, third-party vendors or EAP services. Common delivery channels during the pandemic have included:

  • Checklists, quizzes and worksheets
  • Videos and articles
  • Webinars
  • Saving and retirement calculators
  • Individual financial planning over virtual platforms

The pandemic has brought retirement issues front and center for many employees, but the need for financial education will remain strong. Using this moment of heightened awareness can help you and your employees get even more out of your benefits.

Prepare For The Future

Widespread changes brought about by the pandemic have made it a necessity to reassess benefit offerings. But with these challenges come opportunities. Connect with us and make sure you are ready to meet the changing needs of your employees.

Employee Benefits




How the Pandemic Has Changed 6 Key Areas of Employee Benefits

How the Pandemic Has Changed 6 Key Areas of Employee Benefits