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Benefits on a Shoestring Budget

December 8, 2008
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Health and Wellness, Featured Article, Compensation
T he stress of the credit crunch landed on the desks of Yamaha Corporation of America’s financial services division this fall as the Buena Park, California-based musical instrument maker counseled an increasing number of dealers who were falling behind on payments.

    One hour a week, however, Yamaha financial services employees put down their phones to pick up an instrument. Some reached for a guitar; others pounded away on drums. Karren Salter, vice president and general manager of the division, takes "Clavinova connection," a piano class that combines music with meditative breathing.

    "Accounts receivable is a stressful role to begin with, and with the economy struggling, it makes it more stressful," says Salter, who calculates that more than half of the 16 people in her group take the company-sponsored music lessons. "This is one benefit the company provides that addresses that in a positive way."

    Employers confronting a weakened economy may have less money to spend on wages and benefits, but some are finding low-cost ways to improve employee health and morale. Employers that offer medical coverage say they spend 58 percent of their total benefits budget on health care, according to New York insurance company MetLife’s annual study of employee benefits. With little money left over and the economic downturn making it unlikely that benefits budgets will increase, employers are finding low-cost wellness and employee assistance programs are being especially well received by employees.

    "The economic downturn has resulted in increased utilization of employee assistance programs by employees and family members," says Melinda Down, chief clinical officer at Deer Oaks EAP Services in San Antonio. "There’s just a lot of anxiety out there in the workplace."

    Employee assistance programs often provide specialized services such as financial planning. Many employers say they have offered these programs for years. The economic crisis, however, has made employees more likely to use and appreciate them.

    "I think it’s an opportune time to promote the benefit and do outreach among supervisors and mangers to promote a program and its benefits," Down says.

    Wellness programs are increasingly popular. Fifty-seven percent of large employers offer wellness programs, up from 49 percent a year earlier, according to MetLife. And though many are expensive and involved, companies are finding simple, low-cost ways to reduce stress and improve employee morale. For the past two years, Yamaha has provided its recreational music room—and an hour of paid time each week for employees to spend playing music.

    Wellness and EAP experts say wellness programs that reflect the culture of the company tend to have the greatest usage and appreciation by employees. Yamaha offers a number of wellness programs, including on-site yoga and exercise classes, free fresh fruit and cash incentives to quit smoking. But Carol Baker, vice president of human resources for Yamaha, says the music room reduces stress and connects employees to one another and to the company’s products.

    "I love my music room," Baker says. "It’s the cornerstone of my whole wellness initiative."

    In the past few months, the number of employees using the music room has increased to 70 from 50. Of the 350 employees in the Buena Park office, many are accomplished musicians who take their one hour each week to play in jam sessions in the company’s music lab, a sort of instrument showroom for employees. The jams usually start toward the end of the day and carry on into the evening, Baker says.

    "Regardless of whether you are a senior vice president or someone who works as an entry-level receptionist, you are all equal in that room," Baker says. "And it’s a different feel."

    GotVMail, a Boston-based tech company that provides phone services, offers amenities reminiscent of small startups from the dot-com era. The company spends $1,000 a month having fresh fruit and healthy snacks delivered to the office, and employees receive free financial and legal advice, a perk that has been particularly relevant in recent weeks. While the company continues to pick up 75 percent of the cost of health benefits, even as the cost has increased over the years, its most popular perk among its 48 employees is the Nintendo Wii attached to a flat-screen TV in a room off the office kitchen, says David Hauser, company co-founder and chief technology officer. "It’s a small investment, a lot of fun and really gets people moving," he says.

    The Wii has become a favorite way for workers to let off steam during stressful projects. With its motion-sensitive controllers, the Wii’s sports games—tennis and bowling, in particular—are popular among employees who have formed teams to compete against one another.

    While the company has not calculated the impact such distractions have on employee morale, Hauser says one measure is the fact that some employees come to the office on the weekend to play the game.

    Employers may learn a lot about the inexpensive ways to promote a happier, healthier office by asking their employees. When the CEO of Tribe, a marketing agency in Atlanta, asked her nine employees what they considered part of their wellness program, she was surprised to hear that, in addition to the fresh fruit, a meditation room and fitness competitions the company sponsors, employees said they considered the office’s lighting (no fluorescent bulbs, please) and fresh flowers part of what made the company a nice place to work.

    The lesson is "it’s the little things that make the difference," she writes in an e-mail. "It doesn’t have to be a giant sweeping program to make a difference in people’s lives."

    At Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia, employees have always had access to free credit reports, a service that costs the company $20 per report. But now that credit is harder to get than usual, reports that are free to employees have met a timely need for many of them.

    "Listen to your employees," says Nancy Astorga, vice president of compensation and benefits. And ask them: "What do they need?"

    Of course, for many employees, what they need most during hard economic times may be what they are least likely to get: a raise or free health benefits.

    One company, though, decided that if employees really needed less expensive health coverage, the company would give it to them. Despite warnings of a recession, YS Interactive, a Marina Del Ray, California-based consultancy that focuses on young people in the workforce, decided that it would improve health insurance benefits this year and lower its cost to employees.

    "Even though we weren’t cutting salaries, we noticed our employees were getting stressed out," says Jennifer Kushell, the company’s president and co-founder. "One of the biggest cost drivers for them were health benefits."

    The company has just eight full-time employees, and while most are in their 20s or 30s, health coverage for small employers tends to be prohibitively expensive. Still, rather than invest in a low-cost perk, the company absorbed the 20 percent increase in health costs, investing in a benefit it knew its employees would appreciate.

    "We realized the market was volatile," Kushell says. "This was one thing we could do to give them an extra layer of comfort and security."

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