Why a Global Approach to Employee Benefits Will Be Critical in 2021

No matter where in the world your employees are based, 2020 has caused unparalleled disruption to the ways so many of us work. It’s not often that an event like this causes reverberations across every global market, and certainly not for such a prolonged period of time. Many employees whose ways of working have changed since the beginning of the year are now settling into their ‘new normal’.

What Businesses Need to Do

Businesses have responded in several ways to working from home, smaller real estate footprints, the blurring of private/professional spaces and the physiological toll of the scale of change and loss we’ve seen. Employee wellbeing is being put to the test for all of these reasons, and employers are having to think very carefully about how best to meet the specific challenges of their markets.

Years before the pandemic, employee wellbeing had been slowly moving to the top of the CEO and HR agenda as more employers were willing to make a commitment to creating more caring, inclusive and supportive workplaces. However, the last 12 months have accelerated the employee wellbeing movement significantly.  For employees, wellbeing at work has moved from something reserved for progressive organisations to an expected minimum for every employer. The change in attitudes has been so significant that even consumers now want to hear how brands are supporting their staff, widening the responsibility for workplace wellbeing further. The challenges of 2020 have given employers a real opportunity to have a profound impact on their business by investing more money, time and effort into employee wellbeing.” Gethin Nadin, Director at Benefex, Workplace Employee Benefits & Engagement tech firm.

With 2021 still looking so uncertain, companies who don’t consider the criticality of employee benefits will lose out on excellent workers, employee engagement, client contracts and ultimately revenue on their bottom line. A healthier workforce means a healthier bottom line. So, who’s doing what and where? We’ve looked at some of the world’s biggest markets for inspiration.

United Kingdom

Stress seems to be the predominant factor in the lives of working Brits with Benenden Health finding around half of UK employees (46 per cent) have experienced their job become more stressful in the past two years. Just below 40 per cent of those people have also felt a lack of support during the Covid-19 pandemic. Seeing that mental health remains a leading cause of absenteeism in the UK, good employers are looking for ways to offer wellbeing support even in a remote working environment. This may be team building sessions, access to counselling or online yoga or mindfulness subscriptions. These interventions have been proven time and time again to be good for business, offering a startling £4.20 return for every £1 spent (Professional Pensions).

Wellbeing has been consistently rising on the corporate agenda, with almost 70% of employers having a defined strategy in place in 2019. However, in 2020 employees have faced the biggest threat to public health in living memory, the biggest recession on record and a fundamental change in how and where they work. Employers that fail to invest in their employees’ wellbeing in 2021, will risk huge declines in engagement, productivity and ultimately losing their top performers to their competitors, who have invested in their employees’ wellbeing.”  Mike Bartlett, Managing Director at Employee Benefit firm, Travel Accounts Ltd


European workers aren’t immune to stress either. Elite Business magazine found that 31 per cent of European small business workers are feeling more stressed whilst working from home. Littler’s Covid-19 research paper (which spoke to 750 European employers) also found that there has been an overwhelmingly proactive response from business leaders in Europe, with 90 per cent having introduced mental wellbeing benefits during the pandemic.

Stephan Swinkels, Partner at Littler, said: “The survey results suggest a fairly high level of effort from employers to offer flexibility and listen to employees’ concerns to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on their wellbeing, but there is more that can be done. With the increased recognition of the importance of wellness to maintaining a productive and engaged workforce, employers can take additional steps, such as offering mental health services and training managers to help them spot these issues and support their teams.”

This includes 57 per cent of them offering flexible working schedules so employees can look after family members. Another 31 per cent had formalised mental health support through their employee assistance programme (EAP).

“Many companies have organised virtual social events and regular check-ins to help people stay connected and close with teammates. However, this support network needs to be formalised, accessible and communicated with clarity to the entire workforce. This means embedding it into HR strategies, to make sure that no one falls through the net.”  Nicola Downing, Elite Business Magazine.


Corporate-sponsored wellbeing programmes are a popular feature of the American workplace, with around $100 million of wellbeing incentives being earnt by US employees’ through employer programmes this year. These have come in the shape of gift cards, merchandise and healthcare

Gift cards are a hugely popular incentive across the US, and 2020 has seen spending habits on these cards shift dramatically to shopping online, groceries and even home improvement:

“Amazon and Walmart gift cards were the highest in demand, Lowe’s gift cards experienced a 15% increase over 2019 and Meijer, Giant Eagle and other grocery stores have quickly risen up the ranks, becoming some of the more common rewards redeemed in 2020.” PR Newsweek.


For the Asian market, there is a trio of priorities for employers – physical fitness, financial wellbeing and social contact. For many employers a concern about working from home and the impact on physical health is significant. Even before the pandemic, Pure Storage had introduced an online employee package via Grokker, that offers online exercise and meditation classes. This has come into its own since the move to home working. For other companies, the social aspect of work is something they want to keep alive remotely.

“COVID-19 will continue to pose new challenges for businesses and HR teams will need to step-up and become strategic facilitators, helping both the business and its workforce to manage these disruptions safely. To do this, we will continue to collaborate across teams and countries to understand the various local challenges, while working with business leaders to ensure that the necessary tools and resources are deployed to empower employees and help them navigate the ongoing uncertainty.”  Cloris Gu, HR Director, Eaton East Asia

“Staying connected with co-workers: It’s critical for us to stay connected as remote working or a hybrid approach will still be the default working arrangement. We’ve introduced virtual coffee chats and themed lunches, happy hour trivia and drinks, and will look at more initiatives to help employees have fun even at work.”  Terry Smagh, SVP BlackLine


In Morneau Shepell’s recent Mental Health Index, results indicate that Australian’s mental health has vastly improved since the beginning of the year, although it is still far below where it was pre-pandemic. For many employees, 2020 has offered an opportunity to reflect on their futures, and nearly a third of Australians are considering a career change. Working from home offers employees a unique opportunity to look for work away from their region, as proximity is no longer a factor when there is no travel to the office. This statistic should be a wakeup call to employers who want to keep their best talent; a good employee benefits package is a critical investment.

And What Now for Companies in 2021?

Tali Shlomo, HR Director and Wellbeing Specialist has some advice “At the start of each year most of us would typically anchor ourselves with a list of resolutions ranging from healthy eating, exercise, save, reconnect with old friends and so forth. A wellbeing bucket list. My invitation for organisations is to create an organisational wellbeing bucket list aligned to its purpose, mission and strategic direction. There is no doubt 2020 was challenging and we experienced the power of wellbeing at work and how it unleashed talent, goodwill and revenue. So why would we stop now in 2021 when we’ve uncovered the vital ingredient to any people and business strategy.”

Hazel Robinson, Associate Director Human Resources, Reward & Wellbeing at Brunel University has these final thoughts –

“We have learnt so much in 2020, for all its horrors, a number of silver linings have developed, my favourite is the raising of the Wellbeing Profile.  Our challenge for 2021 is to keep this profile clearly as a priority.  We employ people to join us on a journey, for their benefit absolutely – but for us collectively to succeed.  We expect them to sail through our hard times, which in 2021 so many businesses will be faced with – well let’s acknowledge that our wellbeing programmes are there to support them through their tough times.

A highlight in this year has been enabling a (albeit sudden) massive transition to flexible working.  As an example, I could tell you that ‘Jane’ in accounts, crucial in ensuring the correct calculation your furlough claims were submitted for the returns to be made, was able to work through horrendous menopause affects – including very heavy periods and cramps, without a single day off sick that would have been essential if she had been required to travel into the office, because she could work from home with the loo close to hand, a hot water bottle to ease the cramps and during hours throughout the day that worked for her – your flexibility has enabled that.  Jane is one of thousands of employees that have benefited through your gift of thinking a little outside the box without you even knowing it – imagine what you could achieve if you applied some thought as to how wellbeing initiatives could complement the success of your employees – oh yes, and of your business!

Anyone who tells you wellbeing initiatives are always expensive are lying to you – yes, they can be – but time, imagination, creativity, concern and consideration are all free.  Give a little and think how you can keep your people whole.”