A hard case for soft benefits: 6 products to soften the edge

It used to be that when an employee thought of a “benefits package,” more often than not he or she thought of health coverage and retirement plans. But as these programs have become more mainstream offerings (due in large part to the Affordable Care Act and broader financial wellness education), many employers are providing more diverse options. Health and financial benefits are only the tip of today’s employee retention iceberg now that advisers have an arsenal of other “softer” benefits at their disposal.

Wellness programs still top the list of supplemental benefits being offered by companies of all sizes. Employee wellness programs are designed to reduce absenteeism and healthcare costs by promoting physical activity, improving nutrition and creating a healthier workplace. Offering wellness programs also may improve employee satisfaction and engagement.

Although industry discussions continue to explore the pros and cons of these programs, support for them seems to be holding fast. For instance, according to the Society for Human Resource Management 2015 Employee Benefits report, 70% of U.S. employers offer wellness programs to flesh out traditional offerings. In addition, a recent HealthMine survey showed that 75% of consumers want employers to offer incentives on health and wellness. And a Rand study has found that wellness programs aimed at disease management can generate $136 in savings per member each month and a 30% reduction in hospital admissions.

But wellness programs are just the beginning. There are a variety of employer-sponsored programs that encourage engagement and bolster morale for existing employees while serving as effective recruiting tools for possible new hires. These unique engagement approaches can range from day-to-day perks to ongoing programs that demonstrate an employer’s concern for and dedication to his or her workers.

Here are six ideas that might soften the edges of your traditional benefits package:

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1) Subsidized gym memberships. Many employers offer to pay a portion of employees' gym memberships. This can encourage employees to build a habit of consistent physical activity. Other options could include negotiating a lower rate with local gyms and/or subsidizing sign-up fees for your employees.

2) Activity tracker competitions. Activity trackers have been shown to help encourage physical activity, especially when used in friendly competition with colleagues. To help employees track their own physical activity throughout the day, employers can provide their employees with these devices or encourage them to use free smartphone apps. Consider creating challenges, such as walking a certain number of steps each day, in order to promote use. If you offer financial rewards or incentives tied to physical activity, make sure they don’t have a discriminatory impact on employees who cannot participate, such as those with disabilities or other health conditions.

3) Incentives for bicycle commuting. For employees who live within biking distance of their work site, you can encourage them to ride their bikes to work by offering commuter benefits and providing a space for employees to store their bikes during the workday. Under the Bicycle Commuter Act, employers can reimburse employees up to $20 per month to help defray the reasonable costs of commuting by bike (see IRS Publication 15-B).

4) Professional Development. Consider mentoring, job shadowing and inexpensive professional development classes to help retain top talent. Providing employees with development opportunities is a low-cost, effective retention tool.

5) Healthier food and beverage choices. At company meetings and functions, offer healthy food choices. If your company uses vending machines, work with your supplier to offer healthier snacks, or post nutritional information next to the vending machine. If possible, offer free food and drinks.

6) Flexible work arrangements. One popular way employers continue to adapt to employees’ lifestyles is through flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting or flexible schedules (alternative start and stop times). The U.S. Department of Labor has several resources that can help employers assess and design this type of program.

As employee and candidate expectations continue to be defined by varying generational and lifestyle preferences, traditional benefits programs have changed, as well. By using a little creativity and flexibility, employers can accommodate the needs of a growing and diverse workforce.

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