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2021 employee benefit trends to watch# Mayer: 7 benefit trends to watch in 2021Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & BenefitsLeadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of adecade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. NealAward and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors andthe National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’sdegrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at [email protected] of the most significant years in our history is behind us. But despite thecalendar change, COVID-19 and its associated effects are still the main topicin HR departments around the country, affecting every component of theworkplace.The pandemic has undoubtedly reshaped the benefits industry in 2020, teachingus important lessons along the way. But what’s ahead for the coming year?Considering the many employee challenges the pandemic helped to expose, aswell as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, plenty. Here are seven of thebiggest health and benefit trends I expect to define the year ahead.COVID-19 vaccine support will be paramount. With COVID-19 vaccines nowapproved and starting to be rolled out, the employer’s role in encouraging thevaccine to employees—and helping to distribute it—will be perhaps the mostsignificant task of the year. It’s a big job: Although vaccination isessentially the only way for companies to safely reopen, skepticism andhesitation surround the new vaccines coming out from Pfizer, Moderna and othermakers. Recent surveys show as few as half of Americans are determined to bevaccinated against COVID-19. The polarization means that employers—viewed asallies in getting scores of Americans to get the shots—have significant workto do to convince employees to get vaccinated. But it’s a task that couldn’tbe more important. As vaccines are made available, employers must examine whatsteps they will take to convince employees to get vaccinated and decide ifthey will require employees to get it.Related: HR’s next big job: Convincing employees to get COVID vaccinesMental health will get worse—and it will become a bigger focus foremployers.Depression, burnout, stress and anxiety rates have all soared as aresult of the pandemic and its associated problems. And the trend willcontinue through the year. Employers are finally starting to pay moreattention to prioritizing mental health, primarily because they have to, butsignificantly more work needs to be done in the coming year. Without help orresources—and employer understanding and compassion—issues will only increaseor worsen as the pandemic enters its second year. I’ve said this before, butI’ll say it again: Mental health is on track to become its own pandemic in theyears to come—and employers need to work fast to get ahead of it.Related: Is COVID-19 a turning point for workplace mental health?There will be an increased interest in emergency savings accounts. We’ve heardthe staggering statistics time and time again: The majority of workers livepaycheck to paycheck, and some 40% of U.S. households say they would struggleto cover a $400 emergency expense. The pandemic, which has resulted in jobloss, reduced income, unforeseen expenses and a volatile stock market, is onlyexacerbating financial insecurity for many employees. With emergency savingsrepresenting the first line of defense for households experiencing financialsurprises or difficulties, expect many more employers to offer payroll-deduction emergency savings accounts for their employees to help with thisvery real and important issue.Remote work and flexibility will continue. COVID-19, of course, has created amassive shift in where, when and how work gets done. Scores of employees weresent home early in 2020, where they’ve remained for the better part of a year.Generally, research and anecdotal evidence have proven the success of remotework, while employees have been pleased with having the option of working fromhome. While remote work and flexible schedules will undoubtedly continue asCOVID persists in 2021, we also will see the model continue in a post-pandemicworld. Because of that shift, we’ll also see new benefits and perks related toremote workers. With on-site gyms, free lunches and snacks at the office out,what will take their place? Stipends for work-from-home set-ups, technologyand other perks to engage remote employees will likely come into play in thecoming year.Related: I’m a remote worker. Here’s what I want HR leaders to know.There will be an ongoing focus on caregiving support. The past year has servedas a reminder that employees’ lives don’t just revolve around work. Withchildren and pets crashing our Zoom calls, and otherresponsibilities—including eldercare and childcare—on many workers’ minds,it’s evident that employees have other priorities that distract us from work.Those responsibilities have been increased by the pandemic, with schools,daycare and eldercare facilities closed, leaving many employees scrambling.Several employers have zeroed in on—and enhanced—caregiving benefit offeringsas a result of the pandemic, realizing that distracted and stressed employeeswill not be the most productive ones. Expect a focus on caregiving to continueas employees remain vulnerable to the associated challenges of the pandemic. * * Twitter launches virtual camp for employees and their children. * Sun Life partners with Boston Children’s Museum to roll out virtual summer camp. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) * Pinterest expands PTO to help employees with childcare. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) * Microsoft offers 12 weeks of paid parental leave due to pandemic. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)New, tailored benefits will come into play. New COVID-related benefits—thinkmental health days, emergency leave, virtual summer camps for kids and freeemployee COVID testing—as well as Election Day perks and Juneteenth as a paidcompany holiday all came into play in 2020. That’s a lot of innovation in oneyear. I expect significantly more employers to jump on board in the comingyear. We’ll see more companies offering Juneteenth as a company holiday, we’llsee more Election Day benefits (such as a paid holiday or time off tovolunteer at the polls) and we’ll certainly see more COVID-related benefits.What will be even more impressive to see, though, is companies beginning totailor new offerings and perks specific to their workforce and theiremployees’ pain points.We’ll see increased later stages of disease and cancer. Among its manycasualties, COVID-19 has caused one huge—and a too-little-discussed—problem:Employees have delayed or ignored regular care, avoiding doctor appointments,routine exams and cancer screenings. As a result, in the next couple of yearswe’ll see significant rates of late-diagnosed cancers and diseases with muchpoorer outcomes. This is a vital issue employers need to target by encouragingemployees to partake in screenings and care, even during COVID times. We’vealready lost too much time on this, and we can’t afford to lose any more.