If the last three years have proved anything to employers, it's that the pre-COVID work world is not coming back — at least, not without some vocal resistance from employees. How can companies move forward?
By investing in well-being above all else, underlines Karan Singh, chief operating officer and chief people officer of Headspace. While debated return-to-office policies and rising healthcare premiums will make for a challenging new year, there are policies and benefits that can ease the burdens of both parties.
"While we are no longer in the depths of the pandemic, its significant effects are still lingering," says Singh. "Employees are placing a higher priority on being part of an inclusive and non-toxic workplace culture. They want an environment where their well-being and development are actively supported."
While no one workplace is the same, Singh predicts mental health benefits will continue to be at the heart of what will establish companies as great places to work in 2024. For Frank Giampietro, chief well-being officer for the Americas at EY, it's clear that even though hiring slowed this year, employees will continue to have more power in the labor market — and it would be a big mistake for employers to assume otherwise.
"It got a little popular in 2023 to say that the pendulum is swinging back to employers being in control, but our demographics tell us that that's just not true," says Giampietro. "Over the next decade, we will continue to see very low unemployment and certain skills be in high demand in the U.S. marketplace."
From flexible, hybrid work policies to company-wide mandated vacation times, Singh and Giampietro agree that employees will only expect more from their benefits in 2024. These leaders shared the top five benefits that will rule in 2024:
Hybrid is the way to go:
According to ResumeBuilder, 90% of employers plan to ask their employees to return to the office in some capacity by 2024. But it's clear employees don't want to be in the office full-time: In a Flexjobs survey of over 8,000 workers, 63% voted remote work as the most important thing they look for in a job, beating out salary.
"The battle between office and remote work is finally going to end in 2024, and I think hybrid is going to come out the winner," says Giampietro. "Organizations will start to focus on how to optimize the hybrid model and make it less burdensome for employees to spend a bit more time in the office."
Both Giampietro and Singh predict that more companies will invest in commuter, child and elder care benefits, as well as give employees a certain level of agency to choose when they come into the office. Ultimately, remote work is a table-stakes benefit to a majority of employees, but that doesn't mean being in-person doesn't have its value.
"We're going to find a happy medium," says Giampietro. "The research that we've done for our employees shows that the folks who are operating in a hybrid structure have higher psychological safety and belonging scores than the people who are fully in-person or fully remote."
2. Preventive care saves lives and money:
Chronic diseases continue to be the leading cause of disability and death in the U.S., with cancer still being the number one driver of healthcare costs. According to the Business Group on Health, nearly half of employers expect to see a higher rate of late-stage cancers in their workforce due to delayed screenings. And with healthcare costs increasing by 5.4% in 2024, it seems employers will need to rethink if their health plans are keeping employees as healthy as possible.
This may mean eliminating any financial barriers to primary care, as well as ensuring immunizations, cancer screenings, blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol tests are free and encouraged. For some employers, they may go as far as to remove deductibles and copays altogether, in hopes of reducing long-term healthcare spend with a healthier workforce.
"We're going to see the healthcare landscape evolve, with a focus on health outcomes as a big emerging trend," says Giampietro. "[Positive] outcomes not only positively impact our people, but also reduce spend. Employers will play a big role in demanding disruption and transformation in this space."
3. Mental health is about the mind and body:
COVID prompted many employers to provide mental health care offerings, with 23% of workers reporting that their employer introduced new mental health benefits during the pandemic. While it's been nearly four years since the initial COVID outbreak in the U.S., mental health benefits are on course for growth, emphasizes Singh. He predicts employers will start expanding their definition of mental health care, adding lifestyle benefits that help employees create healthier routines for their minds and bodies.
"We'll see continued investment in mental health care, with a focus on virtual therapy and psychiatry offerings," he says. "Coaching for mental health and other health needs, like fitness or nutrition, is an under-valued benefit — we'll start to see the value of coaches come to the forefront as they have the ability to provide a level of 24/7, always-on support that a traditional, once-a-week visit can't provide."
4. Mandated vacation time for the whole company:
While companies are still debating the benefits of unlimited versus accrued PTO policies, employers on either side of the debate can usually agree: Taking vacation time is stressful when the rest of the company is still working. Giampietro highlights that EY now has a week-long winter and summer break for the entire firm, ensuring that everyone can truly unplug for a few weeks a year.
"We actually shut down the firm, so we take time off together," says Giampietro. "You don't have the same level of stress that you do when you take a vacation, but you still have to come back to all that work. We will see a rise in prevalence of these kinds of things, as everybody recognizes the importance of rest and recovery."
5. Lifestyle and wellness stipends that leave no one out:
Most workforces will have employees with a wide range of needs, making it feel impossible for HR leaders to include everyone in every benefit. However, well-being reimbursements and stipends can account for a lot of financial concerns, from child and pet care, to mattresses and gaming chairs — something Giampietro has seen firsthand at EY, which offers employees up to $1,800 to invest in their physical, mental and financial wellness.
"These [accounts] are really looking at a wide variety of things, from elder care or commute help to travel costs for vacations because we know the importance of taking time off. We include mattresses because we know the importance of sleep."
Giampietro notes that EY is considering revamping their current offering into a more substantial lifestyle fund, making the benefit even more flexible and easier to access.
Whatever shape the benefits take, it's clear that mental health and wellness are the backbone of what employers and employees will need in 2024. Singh reminds employers that their company's success depends on the health and engagement of their workforce. Wellness benefits are not just a matter of corporate kindness, but are a long-term business strategy.
"When leaders prioritize their workforce's mental health, they create and encourage supportive workplaces that foster deeper engagement and healthier teams," he says. "Employees who feel heard, cared for and seen are happier, which helps retain high-performing workers, attract more top talent, maintain worker engagement and boost productivity and output — which business leaders know has a positive effect on the bottom line."