How responsive is your benefits strategy to COVID-19 and after?

Open after COVID
As COVID-19 tests the world’s resolve and thrusts our global economy into its biggest crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s, it is not an understatement to say no one wishes to live through it twice.

Employers, employees and HR practitioners are weathering a protracted storm with implications and course changes for their benefits strategies. Let’s examine and explore what these might be.

Demand destruction brought about by lockdowns and travel curtailment has pushed some businesses into survival mode. Some may not survive while others have to make drastic people decisions or change business models to stay viable. On the other hand, sectors like tech, biopharma, e-commerce and delivery services have had to ramp up hiring and deployment of human resources to meet demand surge. These strains on workforces require a responsive benefits program and a partner that can help navigate these unprecedented times.

Based on Lockton’s US COVID-19 pulse survey, nearly 50% of respondents have implemented a hiring freeze, 30% have furloughed employees, eliminated overtime, and are either laying off or considering laying off staff. The mental wellbeing of employees who are experiencing increased anxiety from changes and uncertainty in both work and personal circumstances is even harder to maintain with many still working from home (see https://www.locktoninternational.com/gb/articles/addressing-mental-health-issues-employees-remotely for a fuller discussion). As major cities across Asia move into the safe re-opening phase, return-to-work planning should not just address what to do in the short term, but also longer-term impact on the business and its people post COVID-19. Size and make-up of the workforce, how work is performed and management of ongoing health and safety risks will be paramount in driving benefits decisions. With heightened budget sensitivity, we are also helping our clients to stretch their benefits dollar and in certain cases manage cashflow by premium payment instalments which insurers are able to support.

In the same pulse survey, 67% of employers who have employees located outside the US stated they had already implemented new operational procedures to safeguard employees. 52% have made telemedicine services available to their employees. In Asia, telemedicine usage has surged since the pandemic began. Initially the increase was attributed to fear of infection during in-person visits to the clinic or hospital. As healthcare resources were prioritised to fight the coronavirus, more turned to telemedicine for acute or episodic consultations as well as chronic disease management. Insurers have been quick to react by incorporating telemedicine coverage in their offerings. We have also seen more demand for EAP services to support employees through challenging times. Whether COVID-19 testing should be considered as part of return-to-work measures is arguably coupled with each country’s testing capability and capacity, and companies are well advised to incorporate government health advisories into their operational processes to ensure safe reopening.

COVID-19 has only intensified employers’ duty of care for employees while sharpening cost discipline. This is the time to ask if the basis, considerations and assumptions for your benefits design still hold true now as we weather the COVID-19 storm. Are there areas in which improvements can be made or savings can be extracted? There may be a shift in priorities which can be reflected in how benefit dollars are re-allocated. Could flexible benefits design be a way to direct undervalued or underused benefits to more pressing needs and make your benefits offering more responsive? Are you communicating what benefits are available in a clear, simple and engaging way so that your employees know how to access them and feel protected at their most vulnerable? If these questions strike a chord, let’s revisit your benefits strategy.

For more information on Lockton’s Coronavirus Advisory Practice’s weekly pulse survey, see https://www.lockton.com/coronavirus-pulse-survey-insights.

For more information on how Lockton’s Employee Benefits Practice can help you, please contact rachael.tay@asia.lockton.com.

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