As employees continue to grapple with persistent inflation, pandemic-related concerns, mental health issues and more, they are calling on their employers for help. But a growing number of employees say they aren't getting what they need in terms of benefits offered by their workplaces.
Employees' satisfaction with their benefits fell to 61 percent in 2023, down from 64 percent in 2022 and reaching its lowest point in the past decade, according to new data released this week by MetLife.
That's in sharp contrast to how employers view their employees' benefits satisfaction. In fact, from 2018 to 2023, the gap between actual employee satisfaction and employer perception of employee satisfaction widened from 3 percentage points to a staggering 22 percentage points, according to the insurance giant's annual benefits study, which surveyed 2,840 benefits leaders and 2,884 full-time employees.
One likely reason for the decline in benefits satisfaction is higher employee expectations in the wake of significant financial and mental health struggles, said Missy Plohr-Memming, senior vice president, national accounts sales, group benefits at MetLife.
"Since the start of the pandemic, employee demands have been on a sharp incline," she said, explaining that MetLife research shows the average number of employee "must-have" benefits has increased from 6.6 in 2020 (pre-pandemic) to 8.3 in 2023. Those benefits include stalwarts such as health insurance, paid leave and retirement plans, but also newer options, like financial wellness, employee assistance programs and stress management.
"While employers have made efforts to expand their benefits offerings, they simply have not been able to meet employees' evolving expectations quickly enough," Plohr-Memming said. MetLife research proves as much: 61 percent of employees say they are interested in certain benefits that their employer does not currently offer, an increase of 3 percentage points from 2022.
Benefits dissatisfaction is also likely contributing to job dissatisfaction. While overall job satisfaction increased year over year to 69 percent in 2023 from 66 percent in 2022, according to MetLife's findings, it remains at a historic low. The 2023 figure is tied with 2020's as the second-lowest rate since 2013.
Declining Financial, Holistic Health
Benefits discontent as highlighted in the new data comes at a precarious time for employees, who are struggling with a plethora of well-being challenges. Inflation pressures, fears of a recession and continued pandemic concerns are among the factors affecting employees and contributing to overall declines in well-being. It stands to reason that employees who aren't content with their health and wellness would also be discontented with their benefits if they think their employers aren't doing enough to make things better.
Other recent data has shown that mental health, which has declined significantly since the pandemic started, has barely improved from the low it hit at the start of the health crisis in 2020. The problem has only been exacerbated by declining financial health as a result of record-high cost of living and recession fears. As a result, employees have been saving less, dipping into their retirement accounts and living paycheck to paycheck.
"This financial risk impacts our mental health: Are we going to pay for groceries? Do we need to cut back on health expenses? It's not a small thing," Paula Allen, global leader of research and total well-being at Telus Health, a Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada-based health care firm, recently told SHRM Online. "It erodes our emergency savings as well, which is a big thing—having that cushion is a big, big thing for mental well-being."
The MetLife study also shows a significant decline in overall holistic health—incorporating physical, financial, mental and social health—with financial health in particular on a sharp decline. Just 55 percent of employees said they are financially well, although employers don't seem to understand the full scope of the problem: 83 percent said their employees are financially well.
A sharp decline in financial wellness is not only primarily responsible for the decrease in holistic health, MetLife's survey found—it's also closely correlated to worsening mental health. Nearly half (48 percent) of employees cited financial concerns, up from 31 percent in 2022, as the cause of their poorer mental health. Stress and burnout are also both significantly higher than before the pandemic, MetLife found.
The latest data indicates that although scores of employers have prioritized employee wellness over the past several years, there is still a lot of work to be done.
"Employers should consider the evolving needs of their workforce and offer benefits to support their needs," Plohr-Memming said. "For example, employee interest in financial wellness tools and resources has increased dramatically, with 45 percent of employees viewing those offerings as a 'must-have,' up from 18 percent in 2019."
So what exactly do employees want? Besides improved holistic wellness help and more benefits offerings, such as financial resources, they want something pretty simple: care. The MetLife survey reveals that feeling cared for at work is a key driver of employee wellness, but 42 percent of employees say they don't feel cared for by their employer.
"As the economy and labor market remain volatile and workplace trends fluctuate, employers can't afford to overlook employee care," said Todd Katz, executive vice president, group benefits, at MetLife. "When organizations genuinely demonstrate employee care, they are much more likely to weather macro challenges effectively and rise to the top for current employees and job seekers alike."
Plohr-Memming said HR leaders should "consider each element of the employee experience through the lens of care," including purposeful work, a social and supportive culture, flexibility, work-life balance, professional growth and training, wellness programs, benefits, and compensation.
"HR leaders should also recognize that care does not look the same to all employees," she explained. "Therefore, rather than prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach, organizations should try to address their employees' varied, and often niche, needs. This will not only improve the employee experience and outcomes, but also help deliver employer outcomes including increased loyalty, productivity and higher job satisfaction."