I was a wreck after my fiancée experienced a major medical event last summer. Was she going to be okay? Would she be the same? All household responsibilities were falling on me, but even microwaving a can of soup felt draining. So, too, did keeping up with texts and emails—including those from my mom (Sorry, mom, I know you meant well!).
And what about my job?
My employer rose to the occasion by willingly fading into the background. A 15-minute weekend call with my manager to reallocate work. A flower delivery. An unexpected DoorDash gift card to cover some of our meals. When I returned to work a week later, I requested—and immediately received—midday flexibility for doctor appointment transportation.
I felt cared for, in two senses of the term: that my employer understood my mental and logistical needs, and, also, that they simply gave a damn.
Feeling cared for at work is personal and transcends the duties of the job. Here, in my role as a Segal employee, I’m about to unpack for you a data-driven study on employee care. But I’m so much more than a Segal employee. Writing about employee care without sharing a part of myself would feel generic. Like I was checking a box. Uncaring.
Most times, you won’t receive a clear-cut story from your employees like the one I shared. That’s where benefits come in. Benefits are available before, during, and after the moments in which your people need them.
Every year, MetLife releases a comprehensive study on the employee experience. This year’s report focuses entirely on how employers take care of their people and the employee perception of that effort.
MetLife identifies 5 areas of the employee experience—not including compensation, which the study and common sense both call a “foundational” need—that, together, shape how employees feel about their jobs:
As a benefits communicator, I’m best equipped to focus on the last area. But don’t overlook the overlap! The support and flexibility afforded to me last summer, plus a gentle EAP reminder from my manager, gave me a renewed sense of purpose at work, a piece of normalcy that was keeping me upright rather than another ordeal to manage.
An organization that delivers the goods sees increased productivity, a better work environment, and higher employee retention. The study shows that 90% of employees whose employers meet expectations in all 5 areas, plus compensation, feel cared for.
Employees aren’t doing as well as their employers think. The study asked employees whether they were financially, mentally, physically, and socially healthy. Then, it asked their employers to peg how their people were feeling in those areas.
Surprise! Employers’ pulse on their employees’ health was a vast overestimation each time. The disparity was especially acute in financial health: Eighty-three percent of employers considered their people financially healthy, whereas only 55% of employees agreed. So, let’s use financial health as an example.
Many financial stressors are out of your control. You’re not in charge of inflationary pressures. You didn’t cause two regional banks to fold. You’re not setting egg prices at six bucks per dozen. And if you know how to solve the debt ceiling, consider a career change!
So, what can you do?
For starters, remind your employees that their financial benefits are tools in their toolbox. A financial education platform isn’t a fix-all, but it could give your employees some agency over their fears.
Second, meet people where they are. Don’t push them to an impossible action. It’s great that your organization has a 401(k) match, but an employee living paycheck to paycheck doesn’t want to feel admonished for contributing under the full matching amount, especially right now.
Finally, remember compensation—the foundational need. No amount of benefits promotion can assuage an underpaid employee. If the pay is below industry benchmarks, your employees will feel the strain. A compensation study or a sober reflection on employee feedback will tell you if that’s the case.
According to the study, employees crave a greater variety of benefits than ever before. In 2020, the average number of benefits that employees described as must-have was 6.6. By 2023, the number increased by nearly 30% to 8.3. Employees’ heightened expectations of their benefits isn’t surprising. Being a person is expensive and time-consuming these days, and workplaces are growing more diverse each day.
When a person can’t meet their own needs, they’ll look to other sources to bridge the gap. Housing has become less available and more expensive; therefore, multigenerational homes have become more common. In the same way, as health and family care costs grow, so too does employee reliance on—and expectations of—benefits.
Consequently, employers also overestimate employee satisfaction with their benefits. Eighty-three percent of employers believed their people were happy with their benefits, whereas only 62% of employees said they were. Perhaps your organization is missing a benefit that would move the needle. Or perhaps the perception gap is really a communications gap.
Think of it this way. Each benefit you offer applies to a set of life situations. A well-designed benefits offering affordably covers as many life situations as possible. When you offer a greater variety of programs, it’s more likely that an employee will find something that addresses a current need—which instills a sense of being cared for. A well-explained benefits offering tells employees when each benefit shines and is clearheaded about when each benefit doesn’t.
Let’s consider a hypothetical. Meditation apps are all the rage right now, and your CHRO is obsessed. It’s all they want to talk about! Yet your organization’s new meditation app isn’t getting much use, despite constant communication about the advantages of a 15-minute break. Employee reception has been apathetic, even scornful. So what’s going wrong?
I see a few possibilities:
Unsurprisingly, employees rank compensation, by far, as the most important marker for a caring employer to meet. However, intrinsic factors matter just as much for the employee’s total experience.
In MetLife’s model, compensation accounts for 16% of care, ranking slightly behind a social and supportive workplace culture (19%) and professional growth opportunities (19%). Three-quarters of onsite workers and nearly 70% of remote workers report that a safe, comfortable environment is a must-have for them to feel cared for. But safety and comfort differ for everyone. How can an employer adapt?
First, let’s consider the world of differences in even the most homogeneous workplace. Let’s pretend that everyone who works outside of HR in your organization is exactly like me: white, male, cisgendered, and 29 years old. It’s the most urgent DEI case you’ve encountered in your career.
Yet, the staff still diverges in strengths, flaws, feelings, opinions, origin stories, phobias, traumas, hobbies, dreams, allergies, and so on. Even in this workplace where employees are alarmingly alike, differences abound; the organization must acknowledge, appreciate, and act on the uniqueness of the individuals in its care.
A diverse workplace also requires acknowledgment, appreciation, and action, but the stakes are higher. The MetLife study phrased it perfectly: DEI are essential … to catalyzing feelings of care across the organization—indeed, care and DEI are synonymous.
Essentially, a caring organization has a DEI initiative that walks the walk, in which people feel seen, heard, and protected, with room to advance.
I’m not suggesting you stop styling your organization’s logo in different colors for Black History Month and Pride Month—just that it’s toothless if the effort ends there. The logo change is an acknowledgment but lacks appreciation and action.
Your organization’s DEI strategy may not be fully in your control. But benefits leaders can influence and support DEI initiatives in meaningful ways. Here are some ideas:
An employer demonstrates care differently than a person. Organizations don’t have shoulders to cry on, but the people who work for them do. The broader resources that an organization is best equipped to provide—a support system, counseling, and security—are still meaningful.
Employees remember the effort. And they deserve nothing less.
We’re proud to work with organizations that value their people. If you want to learn more, we’d love to talk.
Chris Fielder, Staff Writer, has been with Segal Benz since 2019, working with private sector employers, public sector entities, and multiemployer trust funds.