Monday 20, November 2017 by Jessica Combes

Voluntary benefits key to unlocking employee productivity and corporate competitiveness


Employees across the UAE are looking to employers for additional employment benefits, following the successful introduction of mandatory health insurance, which has created a new benefits foundation and a taste for more customised options, according to Ossman Charabati, Head of Employee Benefits for MetLife Europe, Middle East & Africa.

Employers are keen to help create access to these additional benefits because they enhance employee engagement and productivity; and even better–employees are increasingly willing to pay for them, voluntarily.

 According to the MetLife Employee Benefit Trends Study (EBTS) 2017, there is a growing consensus between employers and employees that benefits are good for business. The question now is–which benefits are best? At the moment, there does not appear to be any clear agreement on which voluntary benefits would be most valuable.

Employers would like employees to pay for these benefits and 67 per cent of employees in 2017 are increasingly willing to pay for them compared to 43 per cent in 2014, so employee interest is very strong and especially when these additional benefits help them address fundamental concerns such as greater financial security and improved health and wellness.

According to the study, the five key health concerns were shared by employers and employees: high blood pressure; heart disease/cardiovascular disease; diabetes; cancer; and stress, but the view of their relative importance differed. For example, 54 per cent of employers vs 41 per cent of employees identified high blood pressure as a concern; 24 per cent of employers vs 34 per cent of employees are concerned about heart disease; and 12 per cent of employers vs 28 per cent employees rated cancer.

The broader shift of emphasis identified by the study relates to those areas of ‘wellness’ that employees want employers to focus on but where benefits are not yet offered–these are more related to mental and lifestyle related issues, such as work-life balance, preventive care, and stress management. The biggest gaps between what employees would like and what is currently covered by employers included on-site fitness centres, oral health awareness, preventative care and stress management. For example, only 39 per cent of employers offer stress management vs 70 per cent of employees who desire this benefit.

When we get to the specifics of customised benefits and the likelihood of employees sharing or paying the entire costs, we see further details emerge. The top three additional benefits for which employees are willing to pay voluntarily were health insurance, medical discount cards for families, and personal retirement/pension plan. Of course, higher numbers of employees were willing to share the costs of these same benefits with the employer.

The other top most desirable additional benefits for employees included optical cover, including eye tests and glasses, dental cover, cancer/critical illness insurance, and accidental death.

All of these additional benefits add up to a greater sense of financial control among employees, better mental and physical wellness, and a sense of security which are all important factors for employees when considering their satisfaction with their employer. Even if they are paying for the benefits themselves in full, or sharing the cost with the employer, employees still identify these benefits as very desirable.

The advantages to employers of these voluntary benefits are clear. Managing costs of benefits more efficiently and improving productivity are all very important in a softer local and regional economy. Meanwhile, employees not only get the benefit of the benefits, but also from the buying power of the employer organisation, so they also get a very good deal.

Employers may have large numbers of diverse staff in different stages of their careers, from millennials to baby boomers, all with different needs and desires depending on their ages, from young singles to younger families and middle aged employees moving closer to retirement. All have different needs and desires but the ability to customise benefits solutions means these expectations can be met and managed by employers.

Ultimately, employee benefits are moving centre stage in the UAE workplace; there is still a long way to go to develop a deeper and richer array of customisable benefits options but the first steps have been taken with the introduction of mandatory health insurance.

The distinctive workplace of the UAE with its unique expatriate demographics presents challenges; the EBTS also showed that 59 per cent of employees hope to change employer within the next 12 months.

What will help change their minds? Well, a salary increase of course (but the impact of a pay rise is quickly lost) followed by improved employee benefits. The impacts of additional customised benefits last longer and run deeper, making them an attractive option for employers–and of course, create a market opportunity for the country’s insurance industry.