COVID-19 and reproductive health access were topics pervasive on social media, in Slack channels and in the boardroom during the past year.
These health hot topics shaped employers’ benefits strategies throughout 2022, experts said in a Dec. 8 Mercer webinar. Looking ahead to 2023, worker-informed benefits will continue to prevail, they said.
In a Q3 survey on the benefits landscape, employers told Mercer that COVID-19 has affected business operations: 34% said their organization has experienced COVID-related absences, due to acute illness, isolation or quarantine. Mercer surveyed respondents representing 701 organizations — with about half of respondents working at medium-sized companies (500 to 4,999 workers) and a fifth working at large-sized companies (5,000 to 19,999 employees).
Long COVID also was a theme throughout the study. Mercer researchers noted a Scottish study suggesting 6% of people do not recover from COVID after 6 to 18 months, and 42% only partially recovered. In the Mercer survey, 12% of respondents reported productivity losses related to long COVID and 14% reported leaves related to long COVID.
Looking at the data, it’s hard to say just how businesses handled these COVID-19 trends. Employers are granting leaves and offering accommodations. At the time of the survey, however, 51% of respondents said their company does not require employees to be vaccinated to work on-site. Another 15% said they once required employees to be vaccinated, but dropped their mandate.
Employers can prep for the projected “winter surge” of COVID-19 by offering additional, coronavirus-specific PTO, study authors said. The report demonstrated a precedent for this, with more than half of employers offering some form of COVID-19 leave.
Reproductive health trends
Working parents’ need for greater support has long been there, with mothers, “in particular, sounding the alarm,” according to two Mercer senior associates of total health management, Brittany Bono and Corina Leu.
“However, parental support benefits were viewed as more of a perk provided by leading-edge employers prior to 2020, and support focused heavily on the childcare space,” Bono and Leu told HR Dive via email. “When the COVID-19 pandemic made the issue of childcare impossible to ignore by ‘pushing’ nearly four million women from the workforce, it seemed to create an avenue for employers to focus on broader family needs, as well, to include areas like parental coaching and caregiver support for both parents and people caring for aging loved ones.”
The Great Resignation subsequently put more pressure on employers to attract and retain talent, and family benefits became one of those perks, the Mercer experts added — acknowledging the importance of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in rekindling the health care benefits conversation.
Throughout summer 2022, HR leads saw an influx of Fortune 500 companies proudly announcing their support for employees traveling out of state for abortions. As this news caught fire, questions regarding how companies could fund out-of-state medical travel — for abortions but also for other procedures, such as gender-affirming surgeries — arose.
And despite this summer’s buzz, Mercer data suggested that about half of employers will not be offering medical travel services. Meanwhile, more than half said specifically they’re not offering abortion travel services. (The latter stat also includes companies that don’t have employees in abortion-restricted states.)
Companies that do cover abortion travel, notably, mostly do so without restrictions. About one-third only cover abortions that are therapeutic or medically necessary.
It appears these benefits largely cropped up in response to the Dobbs decision: 36% said they implemented or expanded travel benefits in response to employee expectations and requests, with 46% saying they did so to “remain an employer of choice.” Companies and HR teams looking to attract and retain talent can continue keeping in mind which benefits keep them as an employer of choice.