Voluntary benefits have become a hot topic in recent years, in part because of generational and economic changes that are reshaping the insurance marketplace.
Millennials coming into the workforce are expecting more from their employers when it comes to benefits — more choices, more information, and more value. At the same time, a tightening job market is putting pressure on companies to attract and retain workers with benefits that provide better financial security.
Traditional voluntary benefits such as life insurance, dental, disability, and critical illness insurance have become common offerings for many companies. We also hear eye-popping stories of companies (usually in the tech field) offering benefits such as Tesla cars, or paying for wedding costs.
But the real area of growth for voluntary benefits is somewhere in the middle — new innovations that make sense for workers who are navigating today's economy and planning for tomorrow.
These benefits often involve financial security: paying off student debt, getting financial advice, finding the right mix of additional benefits to help with high-deductible health plans, etc.
Relatively few employees will work for small startups that transform industries or create the next social networking platform. But nearly all workers have an interest in an employer that helps them plan for the future and protect their income today.
Here are some of the ways smart companies are thinking about voluntary benefits as they seek to meet the needs of employees.
1. Burden of education costs
Stories of young workers with overwhelming student loan debt are becoming more and more common—and companies are moving to respond to the problem. “There's a growing appetite to address the concern of college debt,” says Gene Lanzoni, assistant vice president of thought leadership for group and worksite markets with Guardian Life. “We asked what the top concerns of millennials were, and one of them was student debt.” Guardian has responded with a tuition benefit that can help families save up to $17,000 toward college costs.
But the voluntary benefits targeted at millennials that are being developed are not limited to saving for college or helping to pay off student loans. Bruce Elliot, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), notes that millennials not only need help with their debt, they need advice on how to manage their finances.
These younger workers are also thinking about career development, Elliot notes. “The millennial generation knows exactly what they don't know. They know they don't have the professional experience or skills to really succeed, and they’re asking for it — asking for skills training, asking for help in attaining certification, looking for advanced degrees,” he says. “As a result, we’re going to see more partnerships between companies, colleges and universities, and vocational training facilities, as well.”
2. Wellness for the body … and the budget
Wellness is hardly a new topic among employers — many have some sort of program or product they offer to workers to help improve health. Fitness classes, discounts to gyms, nutrition counseling, smoking cessation — there are a host of wellness products out there today.
Some of these fall into the voluntary benefits category; some don't. But one of the hottest areas of wellness focuses not on physical health, but financial wellness. Financial counseling can help employees feel more secure and better able to focus on their work. Programs to protect against identity theft or cybercrime are also in demand.
“Employers are becoming better informed about the stress caused by financial challenges and how it dilutes productivity and time spent on the job,” says Dan Kraft, vice president of product and innovation for Trustmark Voluntary Benefit Solutions. “So there's an incentive there for employers to bring solutions to the table to help employees deal with some of their financial stresses and challenges.”
Lanzoni notes that financial wellness programs have been available for some time, often as part of employee assistance programs (EAPs). “It's a very under-utilized service,” he notes. “It's viewed in a narrow way [because EAPs are often associated with mental health services]. There's almost a stigma attached to it.”
Lanzoni says a lot of employers are looking at new ways to offer such financial services through voluntary benefits. “The way the industry bundles that service needs to change and we’re starting to see that.”
3. The HDHP conundrum
Some of the recent demand for voluntary benefits can be linked to the expansion of health insurance benefits after the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
“The Affordable Care Act and 2010 put voluntary benefits back in the forefront for a variety of reasons,” Lanzoni says. He notes that since health insurance is now mandatory to a large degree, many employers have begun offering high-deductible health plans, which provide more affordable premiums but usually come with high out-of-pocket costs. “The HDHPs have been an eye-opener,” he says. “Older employees have felt overwhelmed with these very high deductibles.”
Into the breach have come critical illness insurance, hospitalization insurance, and other voluntary benefits, experts say. Joi Tillman, vice president of voluntary benefits for Sun Life Financial, U.S., agrees that HDHPs have driven some of the demand for voluntary benefits.
“I really think products that help the consumer fill in those gaps are responding to a need,” she says. “The average employee doesn't have thousands of dollars sitting around to pay those out-of-pocket costs. Having those products available from their employer really gives people a sense of comfort.”
Tillman adds that the proliferation of new voluntary benefits requires that employers and brokers step up their game in educating workers on their options. “Communicating and helping them understand the service is critically important,” she says. “Helping employees navigate these new products is just as important as having the product.”
Which brings up another trend that is less about product and more about process. Many voluntary benefits have technology features or platforms that may not be easy for all employees to understand.
“Having a consumer-friendly solution is very necessary,” Tillman says. “The challenge is that people really need to understand their benefits, so high-touch communication is necessary.” She adds that group meetings can work, but in many cases, employees are more comfortable with one-on-one discussions, even through a device like an iPad.
Kraft notes that the initial emphasis with many online products was to help the employer and HR department understand the product. But with more and more consumers getting involved in their benefits, products need to be consumer friendly, as well.
“Many employers are looking for a simpler, turnkey, low-admin solutions; not only to make it easer for them to operate, but to make it easy for employees to enroll,” Kraft says. “Our research really underscores the fact that employees are much more satisfied with benefits and enrollment process if they have somebody to talk to.”
5. A voluntary benefits bubble?
Tillman notes that educating employees may mean reminding them that their benefits menu needs balance. “People are having to figure out where to spend their limited dollars,” she says. “They need someone to explain both the value and how to access it.”
Kraft says that while there's a lot of innovation going on in the voluntary benefits market, companies may soon also be learning the limits of what the market can bear.“It's an interesting time, because the marketplace is expanding rapidly, but we know the discretionary income isn't necessary expanding quite as rapidly,” he says.
“While it's good to have a variety of offerings, we have to ask, ‘Where is the discretionary income to pay for all these additional products going to come from?’”
“It will be interesting to see how the market evolves. Will offering all these voluntary products eventually dilute traditional products like life insurance?”