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Thriving in the New Work-Life World

MetLife's 17th Annual US Employee Benefit Trends Study 2019

In the changing world of work, one thing remains constant. For organizations to thrive, employees must thrive too. 

In this year's U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study, we look at how employers can attract, engage, and retain the best talent by helping employees thrive in work and in life.

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Thriving in the New Work-Life World

Creating Human Workplaces with Employers as Allies

Over the past 25 years, technology has been the major driver of workplace changes — redefining where and how we work. These trends were the first major step in blurring the boundaries between work and life. From the ability to work anytime, anywhere, to the emergence of on-demand and contract work through the gig economy, technology is continuing to reshape how we work.

But we are now seeing additional trends redefining why we work and what work means to people. As employees leverage work to gain more fulfillment, pursue their goals, and align their values and experiences more authentically, they’re looking to employers to help them manage this new work-life world.

When work and life blend and enrich each other, everybody wins:
Employees who agree
76%
Employers who agree
81%

Employees need an ally, and employers can play this role by creating a workplace that not only recognizes employees holistically, but supports them holistically as well. One that provides experiences that enrich, a culture that accepts, and guidance that helps employees reach their individual goals.

This year's top insights:

  1. When employees are supported as individuals, they are more engaged
  2. Finding purpose at work is multifaceted
  3. Technology is driving a new mandate for training
  4. Flexible careers are reshaping the workplace
  5. The gig economy can be a challenge and an opportunity for employers

While the challenges and opportunities posed by each of these insights cannot be addressed overnight, there’s one theme that runs throughout: Employers need to think about employees’ lives and needs holistically.

Insights on Reshaping the Workplace

While employers realize they need to play a role in helping their employees succeed inside and outside of work, they may struggle with finding the best ways to address — at scale — the fact that each employee has his or her own needs and a specific role to play in the organization.

To help solve for both employee and employer goals, we first have to take a close look at what is causing strain on employees and better understand what will both motivate them and minimize their stress.

Employees’ stress spans short- and long-term concerns
Everyday stressors can pose barriers to employees’ happiness and distract them from succeeding at work. And while some of these relate to employees’ personal lives, the role that work can play — in adding to or reducing stress — is a common thread that runs throughout.

Employees state that their number one source of stress is personal finances. Regardless of age or life-stage, a focus on finances tops the list as the biggest concern employees have day to day.

Some of employees’ stress about finances stems from short-term concerns, like staying on top of bills or paying for urgent health needs. Others stem from long-term goals — in fact, 3 of employees’ top 5 financial concerns directly relate to retirement, even among those who are relatively confident in their finances.

What are employees’ top 5 sources of financial stress?
Being able to afford the cost of healthcare in retirement
72%
Outliving my retirement savings
68%
Having money to pay bills if someone loses their job
67%
Having money to cover out-of-pocket medical costs
67%
Ability to rely on Social Security/Medicare in retirement
66%
short-term financial concern
long-term financial concern

And this concern about finances and retirement is on the rise, as more employees realize their financial challenges may extend long into the future.

2015
2016
2017
2018
2019
Employees on retirement:
I expect to postpone my retirement due to my financial situation
37%

Employees say that solutions that help address financial stress are what they need most to thrive in the workplace and at home. Nearly 6 in 10 employees say an appropriate salary is one of the most important elements to successfully navigating and thriving in the workplace.

Yet, a moderate salary increase can only help so much when dealing with an unexpected expense, whether it’s a broken bone or a flooded basement. That’s why financial support in the form of financial wellness programs, retirement plans, and a broad set of benefits can play such a crucial role in helping employees manage the unexpected and plan for the future. And employees realize this too — roughly 5 in 10 employees say better benefits are key to thriving.

Stress isn’t exclusively about finances, however — and employers are well positioned to help mitigate many of employees’ other pressures. Whether it’s easing the stress of work itself (the second biggest stressor), tending to personal or family health (the third biggest stressor), or managing personal commitments (the fourth biggest stressor), employers can play a substantial role in transforming the employee experience. The right combination of benefits and experiences can help employees feel more engaged and more cared for — and build the trust that enables them to thrive.

Trust leads to happiness at work
While it is helpful for employers to better understand their employees’ sources of stress, it is equally helpful to understand their sources of happiness. Happy employees tend to be better employees.

Employees who are happier at work are more...
Satisfied with their job
90%
17%
Loyal
90%
42%
Engaged
81%
24%
Productive
89%
45%
Impactful
79%
20%
Successful
82%
20%
employees who are happy at work
employees who are unhappy at work

Our research reveals that trust — primarily in an employer’s leadership and their commitment to employees’ success — is the most significant driver of employee happiness at work.

Top 5 Drivers of Happiness at Work

  1. Employee trust in their company’s leadership
  2. Employers’ commitment to employees and their success
  3. A culture where employees are encouraged to share ideas and individual opinions  
  4. A workplace where co-workers feel like family or friends
  5. Benefits customized to meet employee needs

By fostering a trusting, caring culture that delivers on these drivers, employers can cultivate a happier workforce and meet the individual needs of their employees at scale. To do that, employers should commit to weaving transparency, inclusion, and investments in employee success into the fabric of their organizations — and ensure they are clearly broadcasting these initiatives out to employees. 

Part 1: The realities of why we work 

Understanding the changing perspectives of what employees want from work can help employers create meaningful solutions.

Insight 1: When employees are supported as individuals, they are more engaged
Employees are expecting their companies to recognize their “whole selves” — from their unique values, backgrounds, and talents, to their perspectives on the workplace. This can inform employees’ big decisions, such as staying at their current organizations or accepting new positions.

While both employers and employees agree that recognizing the whole person — inside and outside of work — is mutually beneficial, companies underestimate just how important it is in attracting and retaining talent.

Recognizing the whole person means engaging with different employees in different ways. Today, employers tend to look at their employees through the lens of demographics like gender, age, and life-stage. Often communicating to all employees in the same way, they miss an opportunity to connect on a more personal level. 

In a world where employees expect employers to recognize them as individuals, demographics and mass communications are not enough.

For employers, understanding their employee population on a deeper level by evolving employee surveys to cover attitudes, motivators, values, and goals can provide valuable insights into the most impactful ways to engage the workforce. Using this approach, companies can develop employee profiles that can be used for program development, benefit offerings, and personalized communications that reflect their workforce’s diverse needs — at scale.

One way to do this is to focus more heavily on workplace culture and related programs. Employers underestimate the value of these intangible factors to employees and, as a result, could be missing opportunities to more deeply engage their workforce.

Is workplace culture important to employees?
Employees who say Yes
90%
Employers who say Yes
79%

To learn more about how employers can give employees opportunities to showcase their whole, authentic selves, download the full study.

Insight 2: Finding purpose at work is multifaceted
As employees define themselves more holistically through their work and life, they seek purpose on the job and at home. In fact, a sense of purpose is critical in driving job performance and satisfaction — and employees who feel a sense of purpose tend to feel less stress and fatigue.

Employees who feel a strong sense of purpose when working are:
Significantly more satisfied with their job
88%
Feel engaged
83%
Productive
89%
Impactful
80%
Successful
82%

However, what purpose means is much more multifaceted than many would imagine. A common belief is that for a company to attract purpose-motivated employees, they must have an altruistic mission driving their organization. And while the data shows this is important, the way employees define what purpose means to them is actually broader and more varied across all generations.

By simply acknowledging the value employees bring their organizations, employers can help foster a sense of purpose. But they could do even more to bridge the gap between what they think they’re doing to make sure employees know they’re appreciated, and how employees actually feel.

What are employers doing to make employees feel valued and appreciated? (employees vs. employers)
Recognize employee achievements and hard work
37%
49%
Offer comprehensive benefits program
35%
44%
Offer competitive compensation
34%
47%
Solicit employee feedback on a regular basis
26%
39%
Invest in employees through training opportunities
24%
36%
Extra hours/overtime pay
24%
34%
Provide exposure to senior leadership
20%
32%
Provide opportunities to work on projects that are meaningful to employees
19%
34%
Offer timely promotions
17%
30%
Professional development opportunities via rotations or assignments
16%
30%
Additional time off to reward good work
15%
26%
what employees think
what employers think

From recognizing employee achievements to timely promotions, the actions that help employees feel valued are important for all. However, some employees are less likely to feel the sense of purpose they crave — and it’s good for employers to pay extra attention to these employees as they design programs and experiences that help create a sense of purpose.

Building a caring culture that fosters a sense of purpose across a range of definitions can help employers take significant steps towards meeting employees’ changing expectations.

Discover which groups are less likely to feel a sense of purpose at work in the full study.

Part 2: The realities of how we work 

Not only are employees’ motivations for working changing, but the realities of how work gets done today presents both challenges and opportunities.

Insight 3: Technology is driving a new mandate for training
From social media to artificial intelligence (AI), new and maturing technologies are revolutionizing jobs across industries and roles. To adapt, employers must prepare their workforce, hiring for new skillsets — often in short supply — and reskilling employees that will be most affected.

Through the right planning and training, employers will not only get more appropriately skilled employees, but also happier, more engaged employees. Training helps reinforce employers’ commitment to their employees, building a culture of caring that drives employees’ trust in their employers. And it is also a way to invest in the whole self.

Work skills

Percent of employees who say work skills make them a better person in their personal life (up 3%)

68%

To learn more, including what types of trainings employers are offering today, download the full study.

Insight 4: Flexible careers are reshaping the workplace
With the ability to work anywhere, anytime, technology has also enabled a sense of autonomy for many workers today. This ability to work on their terms is a great way for employers to help meet their employees’ individual needs.

My employer provides me the flexibility I need to manage both work and life 

68%

Employees expect their employers to offer flexible work policies around when and where they work. Now, employers must go further to enable not just flexibility in their schedule, but flexibility in their careers.

More and more, employees are building nontraditional, nonlinear, and more malleable careers over the long term — creating significant opportunity for employers to position themselves as allies in their employees’ happiness.

Offering longer-term flexibility through structured programs like paid sabbaticals can not only help employees take the time to follow passions or recharge, but also give employees a sense of pride. These steps help employees know their companies value them and are investing in opportunities for them to have different and unique experiences.

Employees are interested in a paid sabbatical program

66%

Download the full study to learn about how programs like phased retirement can help address both employee and employer needs.

Insight 5: The gig economy can be a challenge and an opportunity for employers
The same technologies and evolving expectations that have driven flexibility and the need for new skills have also driven the ability to blend work and life. For instance, the evolution of mobile infrastructure has made part-time work accessible at the tap of a finger. These technologies are introducing an entirely new way of working: the gig economy, characterized by work that is often based on a fixed-term contract or paid per project via a third party or online marketplace.

As employees shift their expectations and needs for fulfillment inside and outside of work, the gig economy offers a unique solution, as it provides employees a useful outlet to gain more short- and long-term flexibility, control their schedules and projects, and earn extra cash.   

While interest in the gig economy tends to skew towards younger generations, it’s appealing to older workers, as well. 1 in 2 Gen Z or Millennials, 3 in 10 Gen X, and almost 1 in 4 Boomers are interested in gig work. And gig work is appealing to workers for a variety of reasons.

The top 3 reasons full-time workers are interested in gig:

  1. flexible schedule (31%)
  2. ability to work where they want (29%)
  3. ability to take on multiple different projects (22%)

But ultimately, employees want to ensure that joining the gig workforce doesn't come at a loss of financial stability — their primary source of stress.

Employers can use unique levers to cater to employees’ desires for financial security and stability. Certainly, this means considering salary increases, but also creating benefits packages that most gig opportunities simply can’t compete with. Additionally, creating policies and experiences within the workplace that offer the same gig-like diversity of exposure and flexibility can satisfy employees’ interests in this new type of work.

What would make employees who intend to leave their full-time job for gig change their mind? Download the full study to find out.

Transforming insights to action
This blended work-life world is the new norm, and it requires employers to take action to adapt to an evolving landscape. These insights bring up key questions about what employers can do to meet these changes head on:

  • What benefit offerings meet employees’ changing expectations?
  • How can employee benefits meet a diverse workforce’s wide range of needs?
  • How can employers help employees better understand their options?

Reimagining Benefits to Engage More Holistically

Employee benefits and employer-offered retirement plans have always played a key role in helping support employees’ lives outside of the workplace — minimizing expenses, providing a financial safety net, and enabling people to enjoy their retirement.

As employees are bringing more of themselves to work, they are expecting more from their employers. They see their employers as responsible for supporting their overall well-being — inside and outside of work. Much of that support can come in the form of benefits.

2015
2016
2017
2018
2019
percentage of employees who agree
Employers have a responsibility for the health and well-being of their employees
68%

As employee expectations of their employers increase, perceptions of their benefits are not keeping up: Employees’ satisfaction with their benefits packages is declining.

Are employees satisfied with the benefits they receive through their employer?

percentage of employees who answered yes

67%
Compare to 2018

In fact, better benefits is the third highest request on employees’ lists — behind salary and a positive work environment — of what they need to navigate their work-life worlds and succeed at work today. Additionally, 3 in 10 employees report that they would actually be willing to trade a higher salary for better benefits.

To meet the changing expectations of today’s workforce, employers need to ensure that they are building benefits plans that meet their employees’ wide range of needs. Equally important, employers should ensure that employees fully understand the value of their benefit options — so they can make the right decisions for their needs and companies can realize the full impact of their investments.

Meeting employees’ changing needs with a holistic approach to benefits
The most important benefits to employees have two things in common: 1) they play a central role in helping them achieve their personal and work-related goals, and 2) they address their main stressors, particularly around personal finances, retirement, and their family’s health — which overlap considerably.

These benefits are often treated as individual products and communicated in a way that focuses primarily on plan details and payouts — which misses an opportunity to effectively demonstrate both how benefits can work together as a whole package and the role they play in employees’ lives. If we look at benefits more holistically, we can start to see benefit packages as suites of products that employees can choose from to meet their individual needs.

Holistic benefits packages include a broad array of options to meet the diverse needs of the workforce. They support employees in the short- and long-term — and address the stressors that matter most to employees, from physical to financial to personal well-being.

Traditional benefits — such as retirement, medical, and dental insurance — are highly valued by employees, and help manage common needs and expenses. They — along with supplemental benefits, such as accident and health insurance, life insurance, and disability insurance — provide a financial safety net that can support employees’ diverse needs.

Offering a range of traditional and supplemental benefits — and providing education on how they complement each other — can provide employees a solid foundation of protection.

Employers are taking note: 57% — up 7% this year — are committed to offering their employees a wider range of benefits, with non-medical supplemental benefits like accident insurance, critical illness insurance, and, or legal services plans. They’re also exploring retirement programs with options that help employees manage their money after retirement — so that retirees don’t spend their money too quickly and outlive their savings.

When the lines between work and life were more distinct, these benefits provided most of the support employees needed. Now, as employees are blending life and work, there is a need for an expanded and holistic approach that augments traditional support with emerging benefits — supporting employees physically, emotionally, and financially.

Employers have begun offering benefits like wellness programs or on-site services that can help address stressors around work, health, family commitments, and social commitments — and in the process, they’re continuing to bridge the divide between work and out-of-work life.

Employees aren't just hoping for these kinds of benefits — they're expecting them.

Benefits Expectations - employees want emerging benefits
I would be more interested in working for a company that offered these types of benefits
55%
57%
I would be more loyal to a company that offered these types of benefits
53%
58%
I would be more successful in both work and life if I had access to these benefits
52%
57%
employees (overall) who agree
employees (Gen Z and Millennials) who agree

Download the full study to learn more — including what specific emerging benefits interest employees most.

Support for financial wellness is rising in importance
While many of the benefits we’ve discussed help employees manage expensive, unexpected life events, there is more that employers can do to assist their employees with overall financial acumen. Because personal finances is employees’ top concern, helping them better manage short-term and long-term financial situations will help prevent burnout and enhance work-life enrichment.

2 in 3 employees say their benefits package helps reduce their financial stress

66%

And while today’s employees feel confident in their finances, the data actually shows that the reality of their situations is not aligned to this confidence. Nearly 2 in 3 people say they are confident in their finances, but half say they are living paycheck to paycheck, many have dipped into retirement savings, and an increasingly large group says they will have to delay their retirement because of finances. This is where employers can step in with more retirement-related support that helps employees proactively build savings and guarantee they will have a steady stream of income in their post-working years.

1 in 3 employees admit to being less productive at work because of financial stress.

Employers can help increase productivity and reduce employee stress by offering programs that bridge the gap between financial perceptions and financial realities.

Employees are looking to their employers for this assistance
Employers have a responsibility for employee financial well-being, up 3% from last year.
53%
Employers have a responsibility to help employees save for retirement, up 2% from last year.
54%
financial well-being
retirement

Financial wellness programs can help employees take more active control over their finances, both today and in the future, and give them the confidence they need to improve their situations. These programs help employees manage all aspects of their financial lives —including student-debt management, short- and long-term planning, college savings, retirement, and the role of insurance.

But for financial wellness programs to work, they need to be personalized to the employee’s  individual goals. A man in his late twenties paying off his student debt, while trying to save for his first house for his young family, is going to have very different needs than a couple entering retirement who is behind on their retirement savings.

If employees gain more confidence about how to meet their current and future financial needs, it enhances their ability to pursue their personal and professional goals — a win for everyone.

Communication is key
But even when an employer has put together a benefits package that addresses the needs of most employees, if employees don't understand the role that benefits can play in their lives, they won’t appreciate their full impact.

Employers should focus on communicating the relevance of the benefits packages they offer, including how benefits work together to play an important and useful role in employees’ lives. Employers can explain how supplemental and emerging benefits can fill gaps that even the best medical plans cannot, such as the out-of-pocket costs (like copays or in-home help) that can result from a hospital stay.

For a deeper dive, download the full study.

Only 4 in 10 employees believe their employers’ benefits communication is simple to understand.

Changing the narrative of how employers talk about benefits — by showing how benefits work together in the context of employees’ lives, needs, and sources of stress — can increase understanding and engage employees in a more meaningful and personal way.

The right benefits make all the difference
Benefits are a great way for employers to attract, engage, and retain employees. The right mix of traditional and emerging benefits goes a long way toward meeting a wide range of individual employee needs at scale and building a more supportive and caring culture.

When employees understand the relevance of their benefits to their lives, holistic benefits packages are a boon to employers as well. By demonstrating their investment to employees, employers get a more engaged, loyal, and productive workforce in return.

Tangible Tools Employers Can Use Today

To attract, engage, and retain employees, employers must prioritize and focus on what will effectively help them create the most trusted, caring culture and thriving workforce. After all, unemployment is low and employees have many options — and they are less likely to stay with an employer that doesn't meet their needs. Employers must create programs, experiences, and benefits packages that meet the needs that are important to employees.

Employers can take action today…

There are tangible ways to address the most common shifts in this evolved landscape, many of which we have discussed.

… to truly understand what motivates employees
Learn more about employees by adding questions to employee surveys that can provide deeper insights into the attitudes, motivators, goals, concerns, and values of employees — both in and out of work — going beyond typical demographic information.

… to build a trusting, caring culture
Look for ways to continuously recognize employee achievements outside of annual performance reviews — consider implementing things like peer-to-peer recognition program, allowing colleagues to acknowledge each other with points that can be redeemed for prizes.

Ensure employees understand how their role contributes to the organization’s mission, so they fully understand how they help achieve success.

… to implement employee-centric policies
Offer policies around flexibility that are accessible to employees across all life-stages — adaptable work schedules, paid leave to take care of family, permission to work remotely, and Summer Fridays (additional time off during the summer) are among the most requested.

Offer benefits and integrate policies that support employees’ lives outside of work — emerging benefits such as unlimited paid time off (PTO), programs that reward healthy behavior, phased retirement, and paid sabbatical programs are among those employees say they want most.

… to encourage personal and professional development
Leverage the variety of established and start-up companies that provide unique technology-enabled workforce education platforms to keep employees’ knowledge and skills up to date in a personalized, agile, and easy way.

Offer professional development opportunities that are not based on promotion — such as work rotations or stretch and step-up assignments (where, under the right guidance, employees take on responsibilities typically reserved for more senior employees).

… to create a holistic benefit program
Offer a wide range of benefits, both employer- and employee-paid, so employees have the ability to build packages that are personalized to their individual needs and that can be changed as their needs evolve.

Use financial wellness programs, leveraging tools and resources that are shown to drive real impact — such as personalized advice, one-on-one guidance, and goal-orientated short- and long-term planning.

Enhance retirement savings programs to support employees during their retirement — offering ways to generate income as well as strategies to help them manage their savings so that they don’t outlive them.

… to better communicate benefits
Engage employees as if they were customers: alter the way benefits are communicated — instead of focusing on individual products (e.g., hospital indemnity insurance), help employees understand how benefits work together to add value to their lives (e.g., provide coverage for unexpected hospital visits, which can be very expensive and which many insurance plans don’t cover).

Communicate benefits more effectively by using the channels employees find most effective; the top five most preferred channels are the company’s benefits website, the provider’s website, in-person group presentations, benefits handbooks, and one-on-one guidance.

Once employers understand that employees simply want to have meaningful experiences inside and outside of the workplace, they can begin to shape work experiences to keep their workforce engaged. From structured work flexibility to increased training, employers have several levers to pull when it comes to enabling a better atmosphere for employees.

Yet, perhaps the biggest tool at their disposal is delivering a compelling mix of holistic benefits. Benefits can be reframed as a significant part of compensation, working with employees’ salary to contribute meaningful to their quality of life.

For a comprehensive set of insights, data, and recommendations about how employees and employers can better thrive in today’s workplace, please download the full MetLife 2019 U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study.

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