As companies in the Asia Pacific region look to restore stability to their businesses and operations, many are proactively enhancing their benefit programmes, with a focus on health and wellbeing. 

According to a new survey by Willis Towers Watson (WTW) examining the business impact of COVID-19 on benefits, supporting physical and emotional health has emerged as a top priority for most employers during this difficult time where many are considering cost-cutting measures such as furloughs (16%), workforce reduction (21%), reducing or delaying merit increases (23%), salary freeze (13%), salary reduction (10%) and reducing annual bonus accruals (26%) for the remainder of 2020.

As such, almost half of employers have already made changes to their benefits programme - 33% have made changes and are planning more changes, 5% have made changes but don't plan more changes, while 11% have not made changes but are planning to make changes.

Instead of reducing benefits, employes in APAC are putting people first, with 40% looking to enhance wellbeing programmes and 23% planning to enhance health care benefits. 

wtw covid 19 benefits survey figure 4

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In particular, almost two in five employers plan to enhance mental health services and stress or resilience management for their employees over the next six months.

WTW noted that in countries such as Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, more organisations have prioritised wellbeing programmes as one of the most important benefits over this year.

wtw covid 19 benefits survey figure 6With the increased focus on wellbeing, more than 80% of organisations have promoted Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) and online emotional/mental health services for their employees during the pandemic. Almost three-quarters (72%) have also prioritised communicating about wellbeing apps to support their workforce in maintaining their physical and emotional wellbeing especially when they work-from-home. Employers have also been promoting telemedicine services (73%) to their employees.

Cedric Luah, MD and Head of Health & Benefits, Asia and Australasia at Willis Towers Watson, said: "We find it heartening that employers are actively looking at ways and doing what they can to support their workers despite facing significant challenges. By taking positive actions around health and wellbeing, companies are putting people first, and that’s an investment that’s likely to build employee loyalty, raise engagement and enhance productivity."

Companies are also making it easier for employees to get help across all aspects of the wellbeing spectrum. Many are supporting their employees to alleviate anxiety through virtual interactions such as:

  • Offering new virtual solutions that make it easy to implement and support employees to work-from-home (57%)
  • Increasing access to video-conferencing to allow for virtual meetings to keep employees connected around the world (79%)
  • Offering flexible work hours to allow employees to tend to child or elder-care responsibilities (52%)

Additionally, employers are supporting employees in this time through paid leave. About a third (30%) have required employees to take leave, with a further 24% considering to do the same. A similar percentage (34%) have said they will allow employees to carry forward unused annual leave, while 85% of employers reported covering full pay during quarantine leave.

Pheona Chua, Regional Senior Consultant, Corporate Health & Wellbeing, Asia and Australasia, Willis Towers Watson, said: "Our study also tells us that more that 50% of companies in Asia Pacific are likely to include telecommuting as an essential work arrangement option for the remainder of this year. Hence, some employers may want to look at broadening its current programmes such as enhancing virtual care or helping their employees to set up an ergonomic workstation at home."

Looking forward, employers' top priority for their 2021 health care strategies revolve around reviewing vendor performance and costs, enhancing virtual care, and providing voluntary top-up coverage. 

wtw covid 19 benefits survey figure 7Luah added: "With the ongoing pandemic, employers should review their vendor performance and costs, while also monitor the employee utilitisation of benefits. Companies can expect health care, sick leave and disability costs to continue to rise later this year and into the next year. Twofifths of the employers are also planning to revise their 2021 healthcare strategy."

Other key findings of the survey include: 

  • 46% of employers expected a moderate to large negative impact over the next year due to COVID-19.
  • 18% expect a moderate to large negative impact over the next two years.
  • 30% expect a moderate to large negative impact on employee productivity over the next six months.
  • 33% expect a moderate to large negative impact on employee wellbeing over the next six months.
  • Of the employers that are implementing furloughs, a majority will continue providing benefits such as retirement (*5), medical (86%), and life/AD&D insurance (83%).
  • 60% have developed strategy/protocols on how the employees will return to work when restrictions are ended. The same percentage has developed a communication strategy for returning to the workplace. 
  • 62% have reviewed/updated workplace safety protocols, while 55% have reconfigured workspaces to maintain social distancing.
  • While two-thirds of employers anticipate returning to the workplace in a phased shift, 34% of employers also said they would return quickly - almost all employees returning at once.

Infographics / Willis Towers Watson
Lead photo / 123RF.com