In recent years, creating supportive environments and robust benefit packages for employees became table stakes. As the economy falters, employers are looking for new solutions to financial stability — but those solutions can’t come at the cost of employee loyalty.
According to Principal Financial’s 2022 Well-Being Index, 65% of businesses surveyed anticipate a recession in the next six months, and 63% report having already been negatively impacted by inflation. And yet, more employers have turned to increasing prices (64%) and reducing operating expenses (62%) than have reduced or stopped hiring (42%). In fact, 55% of businesses said they will not reduce salaries if hit with a recession, and 47% said they will not reduce benefits.
“Organizations have fought so hard for every hire, and employee loyalty is incredibly important right now — and probably always should have been,” says Amy Friedrich, president of U.S. insurance solutions at Principal. “Instead, they’re looking at other ways to cut costs.”
In her role, Friedrich is primarily focused on insurance solutions for small and mid-size operations, and is also responsible for Principal’s 1,200 affiliated financial professionals. As financial wellness has become of increased importance for both organizations and their workforce, she’s working to help businesses embrace income protection products, while building flexible benefit plans that provide vital support to employees in need.
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Friedrich recently spoke with EBN about shifts in the market, boosting education and understanding of benefits for small- and mid-size business owners, and why a back-to-basics approach to benefits is helping organizations find stability in times of stress.
As we emerge from the pandemic and head straight into economic uncertainty, what are some of the concerns you’re hearing from business leaders?
It’s a little bit of a back-to-basics story. Everybody wanted to talk to me about dental and vision and those buzzier benefits — and I get it, those are interesting to talk about. What the pandemic really brought into sharp focus for these business owners is the need for a group life policy or even a short-term disability policy. If you hadn’t done the basics with some of your life and disability coverages, your employees were really exposed. People want to offer their employees some kind of income protection if they have to be away from work, or something that would provide coverage in the scenario of the death of an employee. Going back to basics isn’t always an incredibly exciting story, but it’s a pretty profound shift, at least in the small and mid-size market.
How much of that is due to employee demand, versus an employer-driven trend?
I think it’s half and half. I had a conversation with a business owner recently who said they couldn’t live with themselves if they weren’t providing the basics — they’d rather take changes to their own salary first. But at the same time, the conversation has changed and employees are more frank than they used to be. Some would say they’re more demanding, but they’re just being clearer about what they hope for and expect from an employer: to feel safe at work and like their income is going to be protected, and that they’ll have something for their family to fall back on if something happens to them.
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So how do you help employers navigate those choices and build these plans?
We start by looking at what we can afford in year one or year two. Employers always guess the cost of these things way too high, to the magnitude of three to five to seven to 10 times more than they’re actually going to pay. So when they’re talking about putting a disability benefit in place, which might actually cost $200 to $300 an employee, their guesses are in the $2,000 range. There’s still a fundamental gap going on when it comes to the cost of benefits. But the marketplace has gotten more efficient, and has more plan-design flexibility than it used to. And when you use that plan-design flexibility to get basic coverages in place, things like income security and protection products can get people to a place where their stress diminishes over time.
Does that get more challenging given the unpredictability of the economy right now?
The businesses we work with are very aware of inflation, they believe a recession is coming and they’re worried. But we asked those businesses what actions they will not take in a recession, and their top choices were really interesting. They said they would not reduce salaries. And they said they would not reduce benefits offered. Historically, whether you were a large or small business, those are often the first places companies go to reduce budgets, trimming benefits or laying off staff or reducing salaries.
Reasonably, is that sustainable?
It’s appropriate to have a little caution there, because if things continue for six months beyond where we are, nine months, 12 months, there will be a point when small and mid-size employers will have to start going after some of these things to change them. But I can tell you, it’s near the bottom of their list in terms of things they want to impact.
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You’ve heard the discussion that this is sort of the strangest pseudo-recession we’ve ever seen there, and one of the reasons there isn’t as much firm agreement on some of the recessionary metrics is because wages and job growth have held up so firmly. My guess is that, at least through the summer, small businesses — which make up a good part of the GDP — were holding up some of those wages and job numbers, steady to upward.
Burnout, stress and flexible work policies have all been huge topics of discussion over the past few years. How does that all relate to financial stability, for employers and employees alike?
For small employers, they really have — almost to their detriment — taken care of their employees. When we look at burnout compared to a year ago, employees are feeling more stress for sure, but about 40% of them would say that. When you ask employers, compared to a year ago, nearly 61% say they’re feeling more stressed. So business owners need to take care of themselves too, and make sure they’ve done the right things for business continuity.
We’ve focused so much on the structure of benefits and PTO and space to manage child care and elder care for employees, but we need to also be giving employers great advice and guidance on taking care of themselves. And beyond their personal health and wellness, the health of their business: have they revisited their business plan? Have they done the right succession planning? Do they have an informal understanding of the valuation of their business? Some small employers have given those basics up in the past year or two, but it’s another back-to-basics concept that we need to get back to.