BenefitTrends_Body.jpgby Erin O’Donnell.

In 2013, the average American worker is more likely to get cash and other incentives from his employer to stay fit. And mental health benefits are on the rise. Meanwhile, the “personal day” is slowly fading away, and fewer workers are getting access to insurance for long-term care.

That’s just a sample of the findings in the 2013 Employee Benefits survey report released last month by the Society for Human Resource Management. As employees ask for more flexibility and work-life balance from their jobs, employers are naturally looking for balance in their benefits budget.

They’re also handing a lot of responsibility back to their staffers to manage their own resources when it comes to health care, retirement, investing, and time off, according to Evren Esem, manager of SHRM’s Survey Research Center. “I think that signals that employees, in a sense, have a little bit more control, whether they want to or not,” she says.

Flexible working conditions

When Marissa Mayer pulled the plug on telecommuting at Yahoo!, professionals from coast to coast held their breaths, anxious to see if their employers would follow suit. As of this spring, most can probably exhale. Some 58 percent of companies surveyed by SHRM allow working from home in some fashion, and four percent reported they were planning to do so in the next 12 months.

Similarly, 53 percent of employers have flexible work policies that allow employee to shift their schedules around to for family, emergencies and other needs outside of work. For modern workers, flexibility also means an atmosphere that doesn’t punish them for having a life outside of work.

Mike Perez, president and founder of High Rank Websites, a San Diego digital marketing firm, has cultivated a flexible and fun environment for his 30-plus employees. The office culture is family-friendly, complete with a play area for employee children, and a Ping-Pong table for the grown-ups to let off steam. A paid lunch hour means people can work 8:00 am to 4:00 pm or 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, and occasional telecommuting is OK too.


“Spending extra money on these kind of perks is important to what I call ‘getting the right people on the bus,’” Perez explains.

High Rank also offers a traditional benefits package, including health care and a 401(k), which most of its peers don’t. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 57 percent of firms with fewer than 100 workers offer health care benefits, and just under half—49 percent—offer retirement benefits.

BenefitTrends_PQ.jpgHere’s the payoff: Perez says only two people have quit the company since it was founded in 2005, and High Rank Websites landed this year on a list of Top 100 Companies to Work for in San Diego. “My goal is to be different from other companies out there,” he says. “When you’re giving back to your employees, they have that level of appreciation, and the kind of work they put in for you exceeds what you get with people who don’t have that level of satisfaction.”

Finally, another key trend in flexibility is good news for working mothers. One-third of firms surveyed (34 percent) offer on-site mother’s rooms, up from 25 percent in 2009.

Wellness programs

Employers continue to get on the wellness bandwagon nationwide, offering more incentives than ever to stay healthy. About 43 percent of companies surveyed by SHRM now offer health and lifestyle coaching, up from 33 percent in 2009. That could include discounts for gym membership, which Perez is about to offer at his firm, smoking cessation programs, or in-house nutrition counseling.

“The wellness trend is driven in part by some of the health care reform, but the trend was emerging anyway, as a way to reduce overall health care costs,” Esem says. Although the jury is still out on just how much a wellness program can save a company in the long run, Esem notes, more and more employers believe having one will also help them boost productivity.

Participation is lower among small businesses, though. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 wellness benefits were available in about one in five firms with fewer than 100 workers. Still, some say the investment in healthier, more energetic employees is worth it.

Consumer-Directed Health Plans

On the insurance side, employers continue to be enthusiastic about high-deductible plans, many of which are known as health savings accounts. The plan allows workers to set aside a sum of money for their annual medical costs, which may or may not be matched by the company. Then it’s up to the employee to manage that fund as health-care needs arise. Unused funds stay in the account into the next year, and the accounts are portable—owned by employees, so they can take them along if they leave the company.

Some CDHPs, like Health Savings Accounts (HSA) remain attractive to small businesses because there are no administrative costs to the company. Esem said employees who have HSAs have to be more deliberate about their health care choices and costs. And they can be a challenge for workers who spend a lot of time in doctor’s offices, either for themselves or their families. “It works for some employees, but not all,” Esem said. (Note: Although the new health care reform law—the Affordable Care Act—will have very little impact on HSAs, another popular CDHP option, Health Reimbursement Accounts (HRA), will change substantially.)

Financial guidance

Defined-contribution retirement plans, like 401(k)s, require workers to make more of their own investment decisions, unlike defined-benefit plans, like pensions. As a result, more businesses are beginning to dabble in one-on-one financial advising. “When you help employees deal with their financial challenges, that can help them be more productive,” Esem points out.

Just over half—53 percent—of the companies surveyed now offer individual investment advice to employees, and two percent plan to start within the next 12 months. Similarly, 43 percent companies provide individual advice for retirement prep, with five percent planning to start in the coming year.

Time off

Comprehensive plans for paid time off are gaining favor over the traditionally separate sick and vacation days, yet again holding employees accountable for how they manage their days off. At High Rank Websites, Perez is eyeballing another trend that’s getting a lot of attention, if not a lot of uptake: unlimited vacation time.

Companies like Netflix, IBM and Evernote have ditched the accrual and tracking of vacation time, embracing an attitude of “as long as the work gets done.” Employees police themselves and, adopters say, productivity ticks up.

HubSpot, a marketing software firm in Cambridge, Mass., has become something of a poster child for the unlimited vacation trend. In a recent column for Time magazine, chief technology officer and co-founder Dharmesh Shah writes: “The truth is that if you hire people who love their work and understand the mission and vision of your company, banking, tracking and paying out unused vacation become a massive waste of time and money. … By not prescribing when they need to be in the office, we get employees who build their work around their families, hobbies and interests, and we empower them to manage their time to align with their life.”

What’s next?

What do this year’s survey results suggest about future benefits? Esem says she believes the flexible workplace will continue to emerge and evolve, even for people who don’t have a work-from-home kind of job, like bank tellers or airplane manufacturers or even corporate vice presidents. Says she: “I think companies are going to become more open-minded about ways to be flexible, and be more creative about ways to manage employees that are not on site.”

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