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The Good, Bad and Very Bad Benefits News for Older Workers

What a deep dive into a new workplace report reveals

By Cali Williams Yost

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) just released its 2016 Employee Benefits Survey which included a detailed look at benefits trends over the past 20 years. As a flexible workplace consultant, I was eager to plow through it for a glimpse into how employers have (or haven’t) supported the success and well being of employees, especially those 50 and older.

For 2016, it’s a combination of mostly good news, some bad news and one bit of very bad (stunningly bad) news. Overall, however, the good outweighs the bad.

Why? It’s simple. As the report said, “With more than two-thirds of organizations reporting difficulty filling full-time positions, competition for talent is high. Therefore, it is important for organizations to offer a lucrative benefits package to retain and attract top talent.”

That means if you are over 50 — and employed at a large company — you have:

  • More benefits that support full-time flexible work, but fewer options to take a career break or reduce your schedule
  • More “informal” ad hoc phased retirement opportunities, but fewer formal, institutionalized programs for all employees
  • More supports for career development
  • More wellness programs than 20 years ago, but fewer than last year
  • Very little elder care support

Let’s look at the results in more detail:

Work Flexibility: The Good News

Older workers, the SHRM report noted, are a key group looking for flexibility in how, when and where their work is done. The report says:

“Flexible work arrangements should be considered a means of attracting and retaining workers. These benefits have proven to be highly valued among two sizable demographic groups — Millennials and 55-and-older employees…The 55-and-older segment of the workforce is frequently relied on for filling highly skilled positions, and these workers often need flexibility in scheduling, whether to care for family members or to begin a phased retirement, among other reasons.”

Compared to 20 years ago, the options offered to work full-time, but do it more flexibly in terms of location and hours, have increased dramatically:

“More than one-half offered telecommuting benefits (60 percent) and flextime (54 percent). Since 1996, there has been a threefold increase in the percentage of organizations offering telecommuting benefits, whereas flextime and compressed workweeks have remained the same.”

As you approach retirement, your employer may now be more likely to offer you more informal options to ease your way into it than a few years ago:

“Formal phased retirement programs decreased compared with 2015, informal phased retirement programs increased compared with 2012.”

As more organizations switch to a “bring your own device — BYOD” technology strategy, there is now also an increased chance you will be reimbursed for some of the expense. The SHRM report said 20 percent of employers it surveyed provide a stipend for a cell phone or smartphone purchase for an employee-owned device and 12 percent offer a stipend or subsidy for using employee-owned devices for work, such as computers or tablets.

Work Flexibility: The Bad News

Other formal benefits that would let you officially reduce your schedule decreased over the past two decades, the report said. “Job sharing decreased from 24 percent in 1996 to just 10 percent in 2016.” Also, “decreases were found for break arrangements, telecommuting on a part-time basis and compressed workweeks.”

There are a couple of challenges I’ve seen that could be driving those declines.

First, companies have struggled with “fairness” in implementation. For example, in many organizations, if a manager allows someone to reduce his or her schedule, that boss would continue to be charged a full-time headcount to the P&L, which isn’t fair.

Second, especially after the 2008-09 economic downturn, organizations are running leaner and meaner than ever. That makes it harder to determine how to fairly allocate work between full-time and part-time staff.


Interestingly, on-demand talent firms (such as ones using contract-based workers) seem to be stepping into the void and providing an option to people who don’t want to work full-time.

Learning and Development: The Good News

With the struggle to find qualified talent, some employers are now training their staffs to develop the skills the firms can’t find in the job market. This is a great opportunity for older employees to learn and update their toolkits. The report said:

“One recruiting strategy many organizations are using is training existing employees to take on hard-to-fill positions. This is consistent with findings from this report that career counseling and mentoring programs are increasing…Most organizations offered employees professional memberships (88 percent) and either offsite or onsite professional development opportunities (86 percent), both of which have increased over 20 years. Compared with 2012, career counseling has increased, as have mentoring programs compared with 2015.”

Wellness: The Good News

The percentage of wellness-related benefits went down compared to 2015, as companies have begun to evaluate what is and isn’t working for them, but a majority of responding companies still offer a many valuable health and well-being supports.

If yours does, take advantage of them. You may even be able to win money and rewards for doing what you should be doing anyway…staying healthy and fit. The SHRM report said:

“Compared with 20 years ago, many more organizations are providing wellness resources and information, an 18 percentage point increase from 54 to 72 percent, although there has been a decrease compared with 2012 and 2015…most common wellness benefits in 2016 provided by more than one-half of organizations were: wellness tips and information sent to employees at least quarterly (63 percent), a wellness program (61 percent) and onsite seasonal flu vaccinations (54 percent)…more organizations offered rewards or bonuses for completing certain health and wellness programs, a standing desk, an onsite fitness center and an onsite nap room.”

Caregiving: The Very Bad News

I’m not even sure what to say about this depressing trend, except that employers are completely clueless when it comes to helping employees with elder care challenges. We are fast approaching an elder care cliff, but you wouldn’t know it from the minimal supports that most organizations are offering their employees. The grim words from the SHRM report:

“The most frequently offered benefit of this type was an elder care referral service, which doubled from 6 percent to 12 percent over the past year. Less commonly offered elder care benefits included geriatric counseling (3 percent), on ramping programs for family members dealing with elder care issues (2 percent), access to backup elder care services in the case of an unexpected event (2 percent), elder care assisted living assessments (1 percent), elder care in-home assessments (1 percent) and onsite elder care fairs (1 percent).”

At this point, the assumption has to be not if, but when, you are called into elder care duty or need to find care for a loved one, you will be on your own, as far as your employer is concerned. My hope is that this will trend will change dramatically as the productivity and talent losses due to caregiving begin to pile up.

In the meantime, you will need to line up help on your own or figure out how to provide care without jeopardizing your job. Good luck with that.

Cali Williams Yost An expert on managing work and life for nearly two decades, Cali Williams Yost is the author of Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day and CEO of the Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, Inc. Follow her on Twitter @caliyost. Read More
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