From retirement and health plans to unlimited paid time off, work flexibility and hot new benefits such as student loan repayment and professional development, these 10 companies are leading the pack when it comes to innovation in the field.

BASF

Work-life balance is often a buzzword at most companies, but for global chemical company BASF, it’s a mission. The company’s commitment to creating a culture that is supportive of employees at work and at home has earned industry awards as well as praise from its staff.

“When [employees] are stressed out about what’s going on with their childcare or what’s going on with their financial situation, that takes them away from being productive and engaged and happy at work,” says Mollie O’Brien, director of total rewards at BASF. “Corporations are realizing they need to keep up with this.”

That’s why the company offers robust work-life balance offerings including flexible work arrangements, comprehensive wellness, eldercare and childcare. BASF’s headquarters in Germany, for example, includes an onsite nursery, a fitness and health studio, an onsite medical consulting service and a practice for physical therapy.

“Compensation has to be competitive, but it has to be about the whole package,” O’Brien says. “Flex work is critical. It cuts across all demographics. It doesn’t matter who you are, everybody wants it. Everybody wants to use it.”

Some other innovative solutions embraced at BASF? Creative work spaces in the firm’s headquarters, which include coffee bars and designed quiet areas, and opportunities for employees to challenge themselves by taking on new roles — or new locations.

“It’s thinking in the mindset of, ‘How can we challenge this employee?’ Maybe it’s taking a finance person and putting him in HR, or taking an HR person and putting him in customer service,” O’Brien says. “If they’re a proven leader, maybe what they need is to get a totally new sense of the business by putting them in a different department, a different country, a different area. From that, they’ll have completely different eyes when they come back. Or maybe they won’t come back.”

“That’s part of work-life balance — being challenged at work. And I think it’s something we do really well,” O’Brien says.

JPMorgan Chase

Despite the prevalence of autism in America — one in every 68 children in the United States is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — benefits for the condition aren’t nearly as common.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

“ABA [applied behavioral analytics], which is considered the standard of care provided, historically has been left out of coverage plans,” says Lorri Unumb, vice president, state government affairs, for Autism Speaks. But more employers are now warming to the idea. Financial giant JPMorgan Chase is one of those companies.

JPMorgan Chase, the investment and retail bank, began offering autism benefits to its 160,000 U.S. employees starting on Jan. 1, 2014, following a well-received autism awareness event that took place inside the firm in 2013.

“It was so well-received that people asked for autism coverage in the medical plan, and we launched that [in 2014.] We continue to see very happy families and employees,” says Lyn Marie Pilgrim, executive director, benefits design & strategy, JPMorgan Chase.

JPMorgan Chase provides coverage for the initial autism diagnosis and the various types of therapies that are often prescribed for the neurobiological disorder. “That could include ABA, cognitive behavioral therapy, nutritional counseling, periodic developmental screening, individual or group family therapy, speech and occupational and physical therapy, as necessary. And, of course, medication management,” she says.

Netflix

It’s hard not to talk about Netflix when discussing paid leave benefits. The streaming giant famously announced last year it was offering as much as one year of paid time off to new mothers and fathers. That was in addition to the company’s unlimited-time-off policy for vacation and sick days.

“Netflix’s continued success hinges on us competing for and keeping the most talented individuals in their field. Experience shows people perform better at work when they’re not worrying about home,” said Netflix chief talent officer Tawni Cranz in a blog post announcing the change. “We want employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances. Parents can return part-time, full-time, or return and then go back out as needed. We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay.”

The company’s paid leave policy has garnered almost as much interest as its show revivals. That’s because it’s simply not done often — or at all.

Only 12% of U.S. private-sector employees have access to any paid family leave through their jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Unlimited time, of course, historically has been much less common.

Netflix perhaps also helped start a new trend — or at least put such benefits in a new light. In the last year, a handful of other companies, including Nestle and Adobe, have expanded paid leave benefits for mothers and fathers.

Boxed

Last year, Boxed CEO Chieh Huang made quite the splash in employee benefits when he announced that he would start paying for the college tuition of the children of his employees.

But this year, he went a step further: Huang said he was also going to pay for the wedding expenses of all his unmarried employees.

“Our goal is to strengthen the overall employer-employee bond,” he says. “I think paying for college tuition and wedding expenses helps us do that.”

The company’s unconventional approach to benefits, Huang says, is simply the right thing to do.

“I realized only two people out of 20 could afford private transportation to get to work,” he says. “Even if we doubled their salary, these people couldn’t afford a car or a college education for their kids. So I decided to do something about it.”

Huang is now writing college tuition checks for four students. He has committed the value of a chunk of his Boxed stock to fund the benefit as more students become eligible for the program over the next five or six years. By that time, he hopes the company will be sold or go public and that half of his stock will easily pay for all these college educations.

“The folks who have been with us for the ride and are present on that day will be eligible for the benefit,” he says.

PwC

Student loan debt has increasingly become a hot workplace topic. It’s no wonder: Student debt is a huge and growing problem in the U.S., with average student debt at an all-time high of over $37,000. With new workers entering the workforce with fresh debt — and older workers still under financial stress as they pay their loans — employers are beginning to see the toll the debt is taking and doing something about it.

One company leading the charge of student loan repayment benefits is professional services firm PwC, which this summer began helping nearly half of its 46,000 employees pay down their student loans.

The company will contribute $100 per month ($1,200 per year) for up to six years (a maximum of $7,200) to help nonmanagement employees pay down their student loans. PwC pays the money directly to its employees’ student loan servicer, the middlemen who collect payments.

Part of the motivation for offering the benefit was the demographic of the company’s workers — PwC is a millennial organization; the average age of its employees is about 28.

“Millennials tell us they’re living longer at home. They are delaying major life decisions like marriage and having children. They are putting off major purchases like cars. They’re not saving for retirement,” says PwC’s U.S. and global talent leader, Mike Fenlon.

Additionally, millennials often engage in “risky financial behavior,” Fenlon says, which includes overdrawing checking accounts, carrying credit card balances and heavy use of “alternate financial services,” like pawn shops, penny loans and tax refund advances.

Helping young employees with student loan debt is simply a good decision, Fenlon says. “Just as we have to innovate in business overall, we have to offer benefits that have the most value that will engage our employees.”

Michelin

Michelin has one goal when it comes to the wellbeing of its employees: Keeping them “as healthy as genetically possible.”

That’s what Barry Cross, Michelin’s senior director of total rewards benefits, compensation and retirement, says about the catalyst behind the company’s recent moves to create a sustainable culture of health that yields long-term, positive return on investment.

One recent move? Recruiting a chief medical officer. “It’s the first phase of a long 10- to 15-year program,” Cross says.

Part of that long-term vision includes a variety of health tools offered to Michelin’s 22,000 North American employees, such as biometrics, personal health reviews and family health centers. Beyond improved health, monetary benefits act as an incentive for Michelin employees: They can earn up to $2,000 a year as a health reimbursement arrangement for a biometrics scan.

Michelin spends about $250 million a year on total healthcare, which includes four family health centers with annual operating budgets of $5 million.

The Michelin Family Health Centers, located in Greenville, S.C. — where the company’s North American division is headquartered — Lexington, South Carolina, and Ardmore, Okla., offer 30-minute appointments to employees. He describes the centers as “concierge medicine,” which is becoming a growing trend in the benefits packages for employees.

Through the centers, along with gym reimbursements, free medication for condition management and on-site gyms, Michelin reduced metabolic syndrome by 12% in three years.

Michelin is also creating call centers to continue to improve employees’ health.

“Employees can call in and talk to a human being and get some real, pointed advice,” Cross said. “We’re going to take that lead and engage more richly with our folks.”

Comcast

It only makes sense that employees who work for a mass media conglomerate get entertainment perks.

Comcast employees in serviceable areas get free XFINITY TV and Internet services, as well as discounted voice and home options — an annual savings of about $3,000, the cable giant says. Employees also get discounted tickets to the Universal Orlando and Hollywood theme parks, as well as 20% off Fandango gift cards.

It’s more than just fun perks. Comcast’s robust benefits package includes medical, dental and vision benefits, tuition reimbursement, child and eldercare resources and adoption assistance.

Financial benefits are also a vital component: Comcast offers a 401(k) plan with a company match, a stock plan option and complimentary personal finance counseling from professionals.

“We have a very diverse population that we need to offer benefits for and take into consideration,” says Jill Personett, senior director of benefit design and strategy at Comcast.

The cable provider even has a benefits committee that determines what perks will be offered.

Aflac

Sure, the benefits behemoth is known for its employee benefit offerings to other companies, but perks for its own employees are equally as innovative. For Aflac, it’s all about providing benefits — such as professional development — that both engage and retain workers, says chief resource officer Matthew Owenby. And it’s working: The average tenure at the insurance firm is 18 years.

“If you take care of employees, they will take care of the business,” he says.

One of the things Aflac “really focuses on is coaching,” he says. “We have people tell us online what their strengths and weakness are. And then we put them into groups to network and discuss how they can get better at work.”

The company takes a wide approach to engaging across different groups of employees, and Owenby recommends Aflac’s approach to reaching multiple groups.

For its female employees, the insurer holds a “women’s tea” where women gather with female executives to discuss career development and challenges women face in the workplace. “It’s a small, simple thing that we get wonderful feedback from,” he says.

Aflac also holds “men’s coffee” meetings where men come together to hear from male executives about workplace issues and strategy. “We talk about personal development and how people can advance their careers,” he says.

Employee surveys and reaching out via social media are ways the company targets its younger groups. “We have a nationwide career expo where we talk about our jobs, and in some cases we do speed interviewing,” he says. “Employees can connect to a real person who is hiring managers.”

Microsoft

Last year, tech giant Microsoft announced a sweeping overhaul to its employee benefits package — doubling the amount of paid time off new parents will receive, adding companywide holidays and reworking its 401(k) matching program.

Notably, in January, Microsoft increased the company’s 401(k) match program, matching 50% of employee deferrals up to $9,000 per year. That’s a significant increase from the company’s previous employer match, which was 50% of the first 6% employees deferred, to a maximum of 3% of pay.

The decision to increase the 401(k) match was based largely on a desire to equalize healthcare and retirement benefits, says Sonja Kellen, director of global retirement benefits for Microsoft.

“We review our benefits portfolio every year, looking at it holistically in terms of the investment we’re making from a cost perspective, but also how we’re benchmarking among our peers,” she says. “We wanted to balance it out a little bit more. Our health plan is incredibly generous; we find [it] to be one of the best in the industry. We wanted to make sure that we had equally as much investment in our financial benefits.”

Included in those financial benefits are one-on-one financial coaching sessions with a Fidelity representative; tools and resources, including Willis Towers Watson’s myFiTage online tool, which helps employees understand at what age they’ll become financially independent and be able to live without a paycheck; and Microsoft’s total rewards portal, which Kellen says is a broad-based look at the total investment Microsoft makes in its employees. The company offers immediate enrollment in the 401(k) plan, with 100% vesting from day one.

La Macchia Enterprises

For La Macchia Enterprises, wellness isn’t just a strategy; it’s a way of life.

Nearly every employee — more than 95% of the workforce — participates in the company’s wellness program. That’s because, says Shawn Gulyas, La Macchia’s vice president of human resources, wellness is ingrained in its culture.

How does the credit union and design-build firm do this? Making sure wellness is a part of everyday life. The parent company of The Mark Travel Corp., which owns and manages multiple vacation brands, including Funjet Vacations, Southwest Vacations and United Vacations, posts wellness tips and inspirations daily to employees. “We have new content [on our website] every single day because we are living it every single day,” Gulyas say. “You may hate today’s, but you might think tomorrow’s is inspiring.”

Fruits, vegetables and other healthy snacks stock the fridges in company locations; walking meetings are the norm; and the company hosts an annual “Wellness Action Day,” a daylong event for employees and their families that features wellness vendors, healthy snacks and fitness games.

Wellness isn’t purely about nutrition and fitness, Gulyas says. It’s “all-encompassing” and includes balance and purpose. That can include stressing the importance of laughter, humor, gratitude and decluttering — all topics that were explored in popular wellness sessions at the company.

“It’s about trying to open up our eyes and see how this wellness thing works,” Gulyas says. He adds, “We give them every opportunity to get engaged.”

Phil Albinus, Amanda Eisenberg and Sheryl Smolkin contributed to this article.

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