• New research suggests COVID-19 has been a catalyst for improving employee health benefits
• But six in ten workers globally believe their company could invest more in health benefits and support

A new survey conducted by Aetna International has revealed that three in five (63%) UK HR Directors believe employers now have more responsibility for their employees’ mental and physical health beyond the workplace. The same number also recognise that expectations around employer-provided health support have changed notably since the beginning of the pandemic, particularly when it comes to mental health.

The research, which examined the views of over 4,000 office workers (many of which were working remotely due to COVID-19) and 1,000 HR Directors in four markets (the UK, USA, Singapore and UAE) is part of an ongoing investigation into the changing needs of the global workforce and the response of employers in multiple markets. Findings suggest that businesses have a better understanding of employee health concerns than they did 18 months ago and have already taken action to alleviate some of these pressures.

One of the key areas where strides have been made over the last year is the provision of mental health benefits and support. Globally, close to two thirds (63%) of workers say working for an employer that provides mental health support is now more important to them than it was a year ago and over half (54%) of HR Directors claim their company has improved the provision of mental health support and benefits that support employee well-being, such as flexible working.

However, employers still consistently over-estimate the quality and impact of the health benefits they offer. In the UK, four in ten HR Directors currently rate the support their company provides for stress as ‘good’, but just under a quarter (23%) of employees who work from home and three in ten (32%) of those still working in an office say the same. In fact, around a fifth (22%) of UK employees working remotely actually think the support for stress provided by their company is ‘poor’ – although this has improved significantly when compared to before the pandemic, when 41% more workers rated their company’s support for stress as poor.

Additionally, while a third (33%) of UK workers surveyed recently rated their employer’s support for mental health issues (such as stress and anxiety) as ‘good’, closer to half (44%) of UK HR Directors thought this was the case. Despite this discrepancy, this has again improved compared to pre-pandemic, when only 25% of employees felt their company offered good support for mental health conditions.

Damian Lenihan, Executive Director for Europe at Aetna International said: “It’s encouraging to see that employers have recognised the increasing importance of robust health and well-being support, particularly when it comes to benefits and interventions designed to support mental health and well-being. There’s no doubt the pandemic has taken a toll on people’s mental and emotional resilience; this year, businesses everywhere need to consider their role in addressing this burden. At Aetna International for example we’re planning to work with our employees, customers and members as part of our ‘building better mental health together’ programme, to try to tackle some of the mental health challenges we all face.”
Lenihan continued: “Whilst it’s positive to see that the perceptions of employers are now more aligned with the experiences of their employees, our research suggests there is still more do to ensure health benefits and HR strategies are not only fit for purpose today, but also for the future. The views of employers and their employees remain polarised when it comes to the steps businesses need to take to strengthen workplace well-being provisions,” continued Lenihan.

While the views of HR Directors and office workers are now more aligned when it comes to the importance of mental health support, there is clear disagreement on how much additional investment companies should be making in health and well-being initiatives.

Over half (52%) of UK workers currently believe that their employer should be spending more on health benefits and resources to help them stay healthy, but only around a third (36%) of HR Directors agreed. Additionally, a fifth (21%) of UK employees stated that health support from their employer has not improved at all since the beginning of the pandemic, suggesting some businesses have struggled to invest enough in health and well-being during this challenging period.

These disparities continue when it comes to the impact of specific health benefits being offered by employers. The research found that the priorities of UK workers have shifted considerably over the last year. While previously the majority of UK employees agreed they were more likely to stay with an employer if they provided good physical health support (93%) or if their family or partner was also covered by the company’s healthy living policies (94%), post-pandemic employees said they are now most attracted to a company that offers:
• Good annual leave entitlement (41%)
• Followed by the ability to work from home (35%)
• These two factors also have the biggest impact on the likelihood of staying with an employer for longer (36% and 33%, respectively)

Meanwhile, nearly half of UK employers (47%) are under the impression that a positive work culture (where employees feel valued, happy and treated with respect) has the biggest impact on the ability to attract and retain employees, suggesting they may be misinformed about the benefits that will have the biggest impact on recruitment and retention.

“Listening to employees will be absolutely crucial for businesses over the next few months,” added Lenihan. “For a lot of people, health and lifestyle pressures have intensified dramatically as a result of the pandemic, something that businesses cannot afford to ignore. If they haven’t already, businesses must act and respond to these challenges or risk alienating a workforce that is already under strain.”

More information about Aetna International’s research, the full data set, key findings and additional insights can be viewed here: https://www.aetnainternational.com/en/employers/tackling-polarised-perceptions.html

By Lisa Baker, Senior Editor

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.