DE&I in Benefits Plans: A Global Perspective
February 22, 2023
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace has become an increasingly hot topic over the last few years, with companies around the world exploring strategies for embedding it into their practices. But to ensure these DE&I efforts are more than a check-the-box exercise, many employers are looking to support a diverse workforce with more inclusive and equitable benefits plans.
Aon’s 2022 Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Survey — which gathered insights from more than 1,200 rewards, benefits and DE&I leaders in 55 countries — showed that 93 percent of those companies surveyed have their senior leadership supporting and sponsoring DE&I initiatives. Four themes also emerged as priorities around the world: a focus on income disparity, gender-sensitive health needs, adjustments for workers with disabilities and mental health support.
Though not every country takes the same approach to DE&I, the majority of respondents to Aon’s survey indicate that DE&I is a high priority and an area of interest around the world. Plus, having a DE&I policy is directly tied to greater employee engagement.
Income and Equitable Healthcare
One of the four themes that emerged as priorities in the report is income disparity which, in turn, impacts healthcare access and benefits. Seventy-eight percent of the respondents to Aon’s survey said they are working to ensure salary equity for all employees. But at some companies, existing policies may mean higher-paid employees are offered additional healthcare coverage, while their lower-paid colleagues find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to wellbeing.
“We know that lower-paid employees normally have more difficulties,” says Joana Coelho, senior associate of Health Solutions EMEA at Aon. “This is not only in terms of direct impacts on their health, because they have less income at their disposal to invest in their health and wellbeing, but also indirectly because access to quality healthcare is not equal for everyone, which may result in leaving certain risk groups and populations more unprotected.”
These barriers to access can add up for employers as well as employees. “The affordability of access leads to avoiding necessary care, and that’s resulting in a higher cost of care over time,” explains Janet Faircloth, senior VP of Health Solutions at Aon U.S. “We’re finding in our research that employees with low affordability in their healthcare actually cost employers more over time.”
Employers are targeting ways to address this disparity through strategies such as offering health plans with more affordable medications and primary care services or pay-based health plans in which lower-income employees pay less to enroll. Advancements in data and technology have also helped some employers make their healthcare plans more equitable.
In one region in particular, post-pandemic advancements in telemedicine and related technologies have created new options. “We didn’t have easy access to all this technology before — it was too expensive,” says Natalia Guarin, wellbeing consultant at Aon Latin America. “Right now, we have a lot of vendors with these technologies. We’re trying to work with clients to find new products that help us promote equity in access to health services, mainly focused on primary care.”
Gender and Specific Health Needs
Another major theme emerging from the DEI survey: Employers are finding ways to support gender-sensitive health needs amid legislative changes and country-specific healthcare structures. In countries where healthcare is provided by the government, companies are not always required to provide medical benefits — and if benefits are only offered to high earners, gender pay gaps could factor into health plan options for women.
Women’s health issues call for specific features in benefits plans. In one prominent example, only 17 percent of Aon’s survey respondents from Europe, the Middle East and Africa work for companies that offer assistance around menopause through external vendors. Rachel Western, Principal, Health Solutions Aon UK notes that some providers are taking steps to expand assistance with pathways to general practitioners that specialize in menopause.
Employers are also building menopause and fertility awareness programs into their corporate cultures. “These could be quite taboo subjects,” Western says. “Menopause can affect women in a variety of ways. It’s about education, awareness and making people clear on what they need to be doing to support these individuals.”
“Communication campaigns associated with these topics are as important as the support programs themselves — especially when we are talking about emerging initiatives to make sure that everyone is aware and engaged,” Coelho adds, noting that tracking these programs is also a critical consideration in measuring their impact.
Supporting Workers with Disabilities
Another key theme from the survey is building more inclusive environments for employees with disabilities. Disability accommodations are required by law in some countries, including the U.S., through the Americans with Disabilities Act. But there is room for companies to make further advancements: 67 percent of company representatives surveyed by Aon say their workplaces provide changes to physical workspaces for employees with disabilities.
“The next phase in the US is identifying those other areas that aren’t addressed through the Americans with Disabilities Act that can still help to make individuals with disabilities feel included,” says Faircloth. “Some of it is around culture, but also looking at benefit plans to determine how they accommodate individuals with disabilities.” Faircloth adds that some benefits programs have been expanded to cover needs like hearing aids and other assistance devices.
Western notes that even in countries that have laws to protect employees with disabilities, preconceived notions about disability can be a tough barrier to overcome. “You get these prejudices at times: individuals feel someone can’t do their job because of a disability. Also there are several disabilities that aren’t physical, and if they are more mental disabilities, they are often not known about reinforcing the importance of generating an open and honest and supportive culture.”
New Perspectives on Mental Health
A final key priority identified in the survey is mental health. Support for mental health varies by region, with 25 percent of survey respondents from Asia-Pacific countries reporting access to a psychiatrist compared to 41 percent of companies from Latin America.
Guarin explains that attitudes toward mental health are changing in Latin American countries, which could activate employers to seek solutions in a post-pandemic world fraught with the stressors of economic uncertainty. “Mental health right now in the region is more important every day, and people talk about it more — especially trying to do away with stigma. What we see right now is that companies are beginning to think, ‘Okay, I need to do something about mental health. But we need a clear strategy.’”
Though Aon’s survey indicates higher levels of support for mental health in Latin America, Guarin says there is still room to do more. “I think we are going to see this as a growing point. Less than half of the employees have access to mental health services, according to our survey. We still have a really long way to go. But the positive point is, we are actually talking about this and pointing to this in the center of the discussion about wellbeing and health in all countries.”
To find out more about Aon’s insights for DE&I in the workplace, click here.