Health+Benefits the July/August 2021 issue

The Future of Multinational Benefits

Mental health, remote work safety, and levelling up benefits for low-wage workers all come into play.
By Adam Riley Posted on July 13, 2021

As companies start getting back to some normalcy and workers are returning to offices, there are challenges ahead for multinationals but also opportunities, particularly when it comes to overhauling employee benefits to make them fit for purpose for a post COVID-19 world.

Many multinational employers are looking at how they manage the return to work, including their people risks and business risks, and a key part of that is adapting their benefits for a new working environment. Here are some key considerations.

Byproducts of Poor Mental Health

While employee mental health was already on the corporate agenda for many companies, the enforced lockdown and the impact on people’s mental health have highlighted the importance of this issue globally.

In the United States, it was reported that the coronavirus pandemic was pushing America into a mental health crisis with anxiety and depression rising. A survey in India found that the number of mental illness cases had increased by 20% since the lockdown, with at least one in five people affected.

In the United Kingdom, the Centre for Mental Health recently said the pandemic is likely to increase the number of people in Britain experiencing a mental health problem in the next two years.

Low pay does not equal low skills or low importance. Every employee represents an important cog in a corporate machine, even if that role often goes unnoticed. It follows that businesses now need to look after such workers and, where necessary and possible, aim to level-up employee benefits offerings at the next available review date.

A major factor that could come out of a rise in mental health issues is growing absenteeism and presenteeism. This is already giving global businesses a headache, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. In a survey by Wellness Programme AIA Vitality, Hong Kong was highlighted as having one of the highest levels of absence and presenteeism of all the countries taking part in the survey. The estimated monthly cost of health-related absence and presenteeism per organization in the city is $3,744,262.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, it is estimated absenteeism will worsen by 2030, leading to productivity loss and a cost to Singapore of SG$3.3 billion (US$2.4 billion), 43% higher than in 2016. In the United States, the economy loses over $2 billion to absenteeism each year.

In the UAE, the level of absenteeism in the workplace ranges from moderate to high. This comes with a high price tag, due to the combined cost of wages paid to absent employees and reduced productivity.

Presenteeism—or going into work while sick—is also a growing problem. Bupa Hong Kong reported employees spent a quarter of total working days working while sick, a productivity loss of HK$30 billion (US$3.86 billion) per annum. In Singapore, research by the Duke-NUS Medical School found it can cost local employers SG$12.1 billion (US$9 billion) per annum.

The pandemic has seen this issue move into people’s homes too. Research by the Mental Health Foundation and LinkedIn that surveyed HR professionals highlighted concerns that home working was causing a rise in employee burnout and “e-presenteeism” in the United Kingdom. Seventy-nine percent of that survey’s respondents said they believed the widespread implementation of home working encouraged so-called “e-presenteeism”—where workers feel obliged to be online and available, even if feeling unwell or already having worked their contracted hours. 

Employers will need a robust mental health strategy to support their workers who may be struggling. This could include early intervention using digital tools that help detect issues sooner and rehabilitation through EAPs and access to professional support.

Health Risks of Working from Home

A study from Yorkshire Cancer Research in May found that physical activity among adults had fallen by a quarter since the lockdown came into effect, leading to a third of people putting on weight. They found those who have increased in weight have put on an average of six pounds during recent weeks. Coupled with this, the typical adult has gone from doing an average of two hours of physical activity a day prior to the restrictions to just one hour and 32 minutes now. This includes everything from a short walk to cleaning the home.

The lockdown has also caused some people to make poorer diet choices and increase their snacking, leading to weight gain. Working at home may well become a growing trend, but without adapting exercise and diet regimens, there are clearly hidden health risks that workers and employers need to be aware of.

Health coverage will therefore be a priority for many, and we expect to see increased demand for PMI and global EAPs, as well as more companies offering access to virtual GPs as a global standard.

Employers will need to factor in these different health risks that come from working at home, which could impact the health and well-being of their workforce in the future.

Companies might want to introduce well-being programs that encourage a healthier lifestyle, including eating more healthily and exercising more, taking regular screen breaks, and encouraging social interaction with colleagues, both virtually and in person.

Employers in the United Kingdom may also consider taking out private medical insurance (PMI) for their employees so, if they do get sick, they can access medical treatment quickly. This is likely to be increasingly important, as NHS waiting lists look set to get longer following the pandemic. As home working may reduce costs for companies, reinvesting these savings into PMI could be something businesses may decide to do, extending cover to a greater number of employees.

Overhauling Employee Benefits

The world of work is changing globally, and so is the employee value proposition. Multinationals considering their benefits packages are facing a whole array of additional challenges. Employers will need to do even more to attract and retain employees as the world economy recovers.

Health and well-being will need to be at the center of any employee benefits package to enable employers to better support existing employees as well as attract the best talent in a competitive employment market.

Health coverage will therefore be a priority for many, and we expect to see increased demand for PMI and global EAPs, as well as more companies offering access to virtual GPs as a global standard.

Critical illness cover is expected to be offered by more organizations too, as there are growing risks to people’s health from serious illness.

Many people put off going to the doctor during lockdown or were unable to access appointments. For instance, Cancer Research recentlyestimated 2.1 million people have missed out on screenings, 290,000 people with suspected symptoms have not been referred for hospital tests, and more than 23,000 cancers could have gone undiagnosed during lockdown.

The NHS Confederation recently said that the COVID-19 crisis could see the number of people waiting for NHS treatment double to 10 million by the end of the year. Employers will want to ensure their employees are looked after and have coverage in place in case they get seriously ill.

We expect more enhanced people policies too. An early lesson from the crisis was that illnesses are no respecter of status or seniority. Employers should review their business protection insurance for employees deemed of major importance to the business.

But the crisis also gave some much-needed recognition to lower-earning employees. Such individuals often fill the more routine or mundane corporate jobs, yet many were pivotal to looking after and feeding the nation during the long weeks of lockdown.

Low pay does not equal low skills or low importance. Every employee represents an important cog in a corporate machine, even if that role often goes unnoticed. It follows that businesses now need to look after such workers and, where necessary and possible, aim to level-up employee benefits offerings at the next available review date.

Companies will also need to look at their business policies regarding health and safety, especially if more of their workers are going to work from home. The employer has a duty of care to ensure the home is safe for employees. Travel policies will also need to be looked at in light of the pandemic.

Multinationals have an opportunity to overhaul their entire benefits strategy and ensure it meets the needs of the workforce and the business going forward. As we move out of the pandemic, this will be even more vital as companies recover from what has been the biggest upset in the global economy in more than 100 years.

Adam Riley is director of global sales at Howden Employee Benefits, Global Employee Benefit Practice Group.

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