In The Worksite

Beyond Burnout

Redefining benefits for a new era of work

A new report from Cake & Arrow reveals how employee needs and expectations are evolving and how the benefits industry can adapt. Download a copy of the full report here.

With the conditions of work radically restructured amid the pandemic, many have been given pause and cause to reflect on their lives, their jobs, and the conditions in which they are lived and performed – culminating in a new era of work, one in which employees are looking to establish a healthier relationship to their jobs and their employers. As work continues to evolve, how can the benefits industry adapt?

Based on a survey of full and part-time employees across the U.S., Cake & Arrow’s latest report, Beyond Burnout: Redefining benefits for a new era of work, explores what a healthier relationship to work might look like and how employee benefits can help employees and their employers thrive in the new era of work. The report discusses:

  • How employees’ relationship to and attitudes toward work and their employers are quickly changing, surfacing new expectations around work that are not being addressed by existing benefit models and infrastructure
  • A new model for deepening our understanding of employee needs within the changing workplace based on insights from our research
  • Opportunities for how benefit providers can evolve their offerings to meet employee expectations in the new era of work

A New Era Of Work

For most people work is first and foremost a means of survival, or, put another way, a means to make the money needed to live. But for many, especially those doing professional office work, a job has become much more than a means of survival: it has become an identity. And for a lot of people, that hasn’t felt healthy for a while.

Then the pandemic happened. And with it, a break, a pause, a change of scenery, a new orientation to work, and a reacquaintance with the parts of our lives we left behind, neglected, or compartmentalized when we left our homes each day for our offices.

A return to offices has become a reality for many and imminent for others. And as the economy has opened up, we’ve seen employees—newly empowered by labor shortages—begin to push back, resist a return to the status quo, and demand more from their employers and something different from their relationship to work itself.

We are now entering a new era of work: one in which employees are looking for their jobs to be more than a means of survival but not their entire identity either; rather, in this new era, employees want work to be an integrated, enriching part of their lives, balanced and in harmony with the others — their families, their hobbies, their creative impulses, and their sense of self. In other words, employees are looking for a healthier relationship to work, defined by clear boundaries and expectations, mutual trust and respect, and open and transparent dialogue and conversation.

Benefits Are Table Stakes…They Are Not Differentiating

While benefits tend to position employers as “benefactors,” most standard benefits employees recieve- health insurance, disability, workers’ compensation — are mandated by state and federal law. Our research shows that employees understand benefits as such — not as a gesture of care from employers, but as an aspect of their compensation to which they are entitled.

When we asked employees what the must-haves are when accepting a new job, most expected the same things — health insurance, vacation, 401k, and the option to work remote, suggesting that benefits are part-and-parcel with salary and seen as table stakes when considering a job...

When we asked employees what the must-haves are when accepting a new job, most expected the same things — health insurance, vacation, 401k, and the option to work remote, suggesting that benefits are part-and-parcel with salary and seen as table stakes when considering a job.

When asked what is most and least important to them in a job, employees ranked company benefits among the least important. Again, this suggests that they consider benefits an aspect of the compensation, not as differentiating.

Building On The Benefits Foundation

While benefit providers continue to operate almost exclusively at the level of compensation, there are opportunities to expand the definition of benefits to support employers and their employees at all levels of the hierarchy, specifically when it comes to improving culture and working conditions. Employers who are able to to attend to all of the needs of their employees — starting at the bottom and working their way up to help employees see the impact of their work and find meaning and purpose in what they do day in and day out — are more likely to retain employees and will have less difficulty recruiting talent, even amid a tight labor market. Benefit providers are perfectly positioned to support them.

Humanity At Work

For many, the pandemic blurred the boundaries between work and life, surfacing the human needs of employees within the context of work. We heard kids crying and dogs barking during meetings; witnessed colleagues hiding in closets and bathrooms during Zoom calls; became intimately familiar with the layouts and oft-occupied corners of our colleagues’ apartments or homes. Employees were inundated with both the personal and human needs of their colleagues and of course with their own — the dramas of childrearing, relationships, loneliness, and apartment living, to name a few, invading the once-sacred space of work, and reminding employees and employers alike that at the end of the day, we are much more than our jobs. We are humans. And in the workplace, we want to be treated as such.

Sharing The Burden Of Boundaries

Boundaries between work and life have been eroding for some time now, the advent of email in the workplace making it possible to be at work while not being at work. As boundaries have become even more fluid amidst the pandemic, upholding them has become more challenging; the simmering sense of burnout that bubbled beneath the surface in the before-times now boiling over; the last remaining boundary standing between work and life — the office — for many, now erased.

Without offices new questions emerge: what does a boundary look like when it’s not an actual physical place and who does the burden of creating and enforcing a boundary belong to? For a long time it has belonged to employees, who have been expected to bring passion to their jobs, to think of their jobs as a “labor of love” and of their colleagues like family. It’s no surprise then, that when we asked respondents about the most important things to them in a job, passion ranked pretty far down on the list. For the burned out, things like work-life balance and adequate compensation make meaning and passion in a job possible.

So how does one go about treating employees like humans in the workplace, and sharing the burden of boundaries? It first requires developing a deeper understanding of employees needs within and outside of the workplace.