Encourage Inclusivity and Flexibility With Proactive Employee Benefits

The pandemic has brought new workforce situations requiring new solutions to the forefront of our daily lives. Innovative and proactive employee benefits can answer some of these current challenges.

We’re all familiar with “core” benefits like health insurance, retirement plans, paid time off, life insurance and disability benefits. Commonly-offered core benefits will always be tried and true, and very desirable to workers.

But what about newer benefits that serve the needs of today’s diverse worker population? By offering a range of proactive employee benefits, employers can show that they recognize their workers’ needs and concerns, especially in these stressful times. While highly-valued by some workers, often they’re less-commonly offered. However, these emerging benefits have been getting attention for the past few years—certainly pre-COVID—and they’ll continue to be talked about as we move forward. Some may be even more important than before.

Encourage Inclusivity and Flexibility With Proactive Employee Benefits

Main themes of emerging benefits

In looking at these emerging benefits, we can identify several themes. One is inclusivity. Employers are finding that what’s important is attracting and keeping key talent—and this talent’s gender identity or sexual orientation, or how they define family, doesn’t matter.

Another theme is flexibility. Employers are finding that flexibility in melding job and family responsibilities can work; employees are still as productive, if not more so. As we move post-pandemic, the need for flexibility and inclusivity will remain strong. And, we’ll see a continued need for benefits that provide financial stability and mental well-being.


One emerging benefit we’re watching is known as gender-affirmation benefits, also called transgender-inclusive benefits.

In 2020, 21% of members responding to the Employee Benefits Survey, our biennial benchmarking survey, reported offering at least one type of benefit in this category. About 17%-19% cover physician visits, gender-affirmation surgery, mental health counseling pre- and-post surgery, and prescription drug therapies.

The Outlook for Health Care: 2021 and Beyond

Survey responses were collected shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Bostock v. Clayton County, which ruled that nondiscrimination on the basis of sex under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes nondiscrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. In light of the Bostock decision and President Biden’s recent January 20, 2021 executive order, this type of benefit may garner more attention in 2021 and beyond.  

Another emerging benefit we’ve been tracking for the past few years is fertility benefits. In 2018, 23% of respondents to our survey offered at least one type of fertility benefit; that jumped to 30% in 2020.

At 22%, the most commonly offered fertility benefit is coverage for fertility medications and for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Nine percent offer egg harvesting and freezing. Interestingly, in mid-January, TIME ran an article about this topic. Fertility clinics are reporting that egg harvesting and freezing happened more than usual in 2020 because women were putting off having babies, and even dating, during the uncertainties of the pandemic. Fertility benefits can be highly valued by talent no matter their gender identity or relationship status.


Next, let’s look at caregiving, whether for children or for elders. With day care centers closed, assisted living centers locked down and schools going virtual, employees have been facing more challenges in caregiving than ever before.

In another recent survey, Employee Benefits in a COVID-19 World—Six-Month Update, we learned how employers are making proactive changes to benefits during the pandemic, and we found that 55% of responding employers told us they’ve allowed flexibility in work hours to accommodate school needs, as well as child and elder care.

This is a big change for most employers since the pandemic started. About one quarter of them had allowed this previously. We also found more employers providing financial assistance for dependent care and tutoring. A small percentage, about 7%, have even provided access to virtual day camps for kids.

Let’s talk about those other types of kids—pets! Pet insurance, which covers veterinary expenses for accidents and illnesses but typically not routine preventive care, is made available as a voluntary employee-pay-all benefit by 24% of respondents to Employee Benefits Survey. A new type of benefit is pet care leave—affectionately called pawternity leave, 7% of employers offer unpaid leave and just under 1% offer paid leave for their workers to take time off to help a pet adjust to their new home.

Those of you working remotely might have seen a colleague’s cat perched on their shoulder during a video meeting. What may have started out as a teasing question has now become a serious question: how will pets react if/when their people return to the office? We found that 4% of employers allow pets at work; that’s up from 2% in 2018. A few companies are also providing paid or unpaid pet bereavement leave for workers who lose a pet.

[Upcoming Webcast: Mental Health at Work: Today’s Lessons for Tomorrow’s Workforce |April 6, 2021]

Pandemic Consequences

Among the many challenges brought about by the pandemic are a couple that will have a long reach among the workforce for years to come—financial insecurity and mental well-being.

To assist employees shouldering student loan debt, employers can provide repayment assistance and/or counseling with refinancing assistance. These types of benefits are offered by about 6%-7% of our survey respondents. Most commonly, employers give workers a monthly or annual reimbursement amount that is paid over a certain period of time.

One example that caught our attention was Abbott’s program tied to their 401(k) plan. Under this model, when employees pay down their student loans, the company gives them the 401(k) match they would have received if they’d deferred the money instead into their 401(k) account.

This model received an IRS private letter ruling, and the agency is reportedly exploring whether to give guidance on this type of plan for other employers to adopt. This model has also been considered in federal legislation.

Another issue that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic’s lockdown is domestic violence. The benefit here is paid or unpaid domestic violence or “safe” leave for an employee who is a victim themselves, or if their family or household member is a victim. The time off is used to move, meet with law enforcement and/or lawyers, receive medical and/or mental health care, and to handle child care issues. There are some state and local mandates in place for this type of leave. Some employers make this leave available without a mandate.

While mental health benefits and employee assistance programs are closer to being a core benefit, the need for this type of care and service is even more critical now, during the pandemic and after. Fear, social isolation, physical health challenges, financial insecurities, grief, caregiving stressors and the like can cause anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. We found that 26% of surveyed organizations reported having enhanced the mental health benefits they provide to workers due to the pandemic, and 20% have added services to their employee assistance program (EAP).

Looking to the Future

While several of these proactive benefits are not commonly offered at this point, they may be attractive to workers. As with any type of benefit offering, it’s crucial to think strategically: Will this new benefit fit your organization’s culture? Will it be useful in attracting and retaining diverse talent? Will it be utilized and valued? Will it support workers’ well-being? As with all benefits, there’s no one size fits all.

Julie Stich, CEBS
Vice President, Content, at the International Foundation

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Julie Stich, CEBS

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