Skip to main content

Embracing Inclusivity: How Benefits Design Can Unify a Diverse Workforce

With many types of communities represented within employee populations, especially at large national and multinational organizations, accommodating and recognizing diversity is a key business challenge.

For organizations spread across different geographies and demographics, initiatives intended to be inclusive to one group may be interpreted as controversial by another. As a result, inclusive benefit design is not straightforward. So is it possible to find a solution that accommodates needs, satisfies the organization’s goals and brings employees together? And what’s the best way to approach the delivery of a common but flexible approach to health and wellbeing?

The pandemic highlighted the diversity of individual employee needs. Each of us was challenged in a different way by the demands of living, working and surviving during lockdowns, quarantines, and restrictions on travel. Business leaders were forced to support their employees’ unique needs in order to help them maintain a healthy work-life balance throughout this time.

In short, businesses had to become more inclusive.

As leaders settle into their new ways of working, will they continue building more diverse, equitable and inclusive cultures? Or will the gains made in this area over the last two years take a backseat to other priorities?

In this article, we explore how embracing inclusivity in benefits design helps to build a happier, more loyal and resilient workforce, and discover how the sensitive implementation of this approach has allowed companies to build an inclusive culture that helps to attract and retain top talent in their organization. 

With insights from:

  • Lily Aguilar, Senior Vice President, Health Solutions, Aon


The effects of inclusion on employee wellbeing

Social identity theory proposed by Tajfel and Turner (1986)[1] suggests that our cultural and social identities are key components of our self-esteem. That means being able to fully express our identity at work not only matters, but requires managers to play an active role in celebrating, encouraging and valuing the expression of everyone’s unique identities in the workplace. When employees are able to bring their whole selves to work, they feel secure, well-adjusted and more capable of consistently delivering their best work. This makes inclusivity a key pillar of wellbeing at work.

Aon’s Global Wellbeing Survey 2021[2] shows that improving employee wellbeing leads to positive business outcomes in areas such as customer satisfaction and retention, employee satisfaction, profits, innovation, and employee turnover.


Offering inclusive benefits is just one part of creating an inclusive culture. But it is more than just ticking boxes. It’s about creating a company-wide strategy that continually evolves to meet employees’ needs throughout their working lives.


What do employee benefits say about a business and its leaders?

A diverse and inclusive business is built from the different backgrounds, beliefs and perspectives of its people[3]. So it makes sense that any health and wellbeing programs should be tailored to individual needs. Adopting this approach to benefits also helps to attract and retain talent. A recent study from Aon showed that employers who rated their benefits programs as highly effective were more likely to mention attracting diverse talent as a priority[4].


“Benefits are one way of saying something about your company's culture. If you are offering benefit programs that are diverse and inclusive, that's saying something about how you conduct business and the experience employees can expect to have. Job seekers and employees want to see that their unique needs are being recognized.”

Lily Aguilar, Senior Vice President, Health Solutions, Aon


Making benefits programs more inclusive requires a flexible, practical approach. Employees should be aware of all the benefits that are available to them with the freedom to select the ones best suited to their needs. To achieve maximum impact, it’s critical that these initiatives are embedded in and supported throughout the organization.

Aon worked with a major technology company who understands this approach very well. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) has been a high priority topic within their business for years, and the motivation to create a diverse and inclusive workforce comes directly from the leadership team. As a global technology firm, their long-term investment in diversity is best reflected in the leadership team themselves, who represent the diverse population that the company both employs and serves. With this strong representation at the helm, the firm sends a clear signal to potential recruits that inclusion is an inherent strength that permeates the organization. 

When managers lead on inclusivity, it makes it easier to align benefits programs with that intent. After all, the focus and buy-in required from senior leaders is there from the start.


“When we think about diversity, equity and inclusion, it's not a box-checking exercise. This has to be something that employers focus  on from a company culture standpoint. It starts with leadership, and it cascades down to the rest of the organization. The behaviors to support DE&I have to be modeled by everybody in the organization. If you have the greatest programs in the world but there's an attitude of, 'That's not my experience,' you're not going to make headway. This has to be something where there's buy-in from all levels within the organization.”

Lily Aguilar, Senior Vice President, Health Solutions, Aon


Of course, getting everyone within a business to buy into inclusivity is not easy. Change and awareness will happen at different speeds. The best way for a leadership team to develop inclusivity is through continuous dialogue with their employee communities.

While some of those conversations are difficult to have, they are viewed through a positive lens of being another invaluable learning opportunity that helps to drive the creation of an inclusive culture.

Having an ongoing dialogue acknowledges that just as each employee’s life is evolving and changing all the time, so too are the specific benefits they will need at different stages of their careers.

In previous years, many leaders would have pointed merely to the fact that they covered same-sex partners in their benefits packages as evidence of their inclusivity. However, as more and more focus is devoted to DE&I issues, leaders are seeing opportunities for growth. Partnering with vendors who specialize in inclusion can bring to light issues like coverage for fertility issues, for example. While many companies provide a benefit for infertility treatment, that benefit may not cover same-sex couples who are not infertile. It can be as simple as using more inclusive language like “conception support” to provide a benefit that more broadly supports employees.



Everybody benefits from strategic benefit design

When designing inclusive benefits, managers can sometimes make the mistake of implementing broad sets of disparate programs in the hope that some will meet the needs of their people. Invariably, programs are most successful if they are well maintained and supported. It is important to avoid spreading programs too thinly and to maximize program budgets by taking a more considered and strategic approach.


“Employers need to be thoughtful about their approach. To be successful, they can't be scattershot. They need to identify what the strategic goals should be, their target groups, and ultimately, where they want to focus.”

Lily Aguilar, Senior Vice President, Health Solutions, Aon


In the case of the large technology company, Aon examined the data on healthcare benefit uptake and compared their findings to the client’s organizational priorities. This allowed them to determine precisely where to focus within the framework of the company’s US health and benefits.

The data revealed that some employee communities were experiencing challenges in accessing appropriate healthcare provisions. For example, for those employees living in rural areas, a lack of primary care doctors meant more emergency room visits and critical care situations. Feedback from LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Groups revealed employees from this community experienced discrimination that prevented them from accessing the healthcare they were entitled to.

By taking a strategic approach to their benefits design and listening to the data, the HR team at Aon’s client identified issues that were common to several employee communities. This allowed them to implement programs to improve employee access to healthcare providers, while also enhancing the quality, relevance and appropriateness of the service received by each specific group.


Telehealth: a powerful tool of inclusion

Telehealth can make a significant difference to employees’ lives. Bringing the virtual doctor to the employee in the comfort of their own home rather than expecting the employee to navigate the challenges of visiting the doctor encourages the creation of a healthy, resilient workforce.

Using the insights gathered from the strategic review of their employee healthcare programs, Aon and our client worked with a provider to roll out virtual primary care for all US employees. This gave all employees access to primary care and solved the issue of accessibility for those employees based in rural communities.

The company also implemented a new program that focused on helping members of the LGBTQ+ community within the company get access to healthcare that is sympathetic to their needs. It is unique because the service is staffed by people from that very community.      


“What I found interesting is the percentage of people in the Pride community who had been turned away for healthcare. It was things that you wouldn't expect, like going to the dentist. This new program not only helps with steerage to find a provider, it also provides guidance, like if you are thinking about coming out. The support is available to employees and their family members to assist them through the process. The advocates help the member come up with a plan and a strategy to decide how to come out, offering the emotional support they need. The organization is staffed by people within the community and their close allies. When you call in, you know that you're going to be speaking to somebody who can have a frame of reference for what you might be experiencing.”

Lily Aguilar, Senior Vice President, Health Solutions, Aon


By recognizing that employees have different needs, companies can deliver employee healthcare in a more diverse and inclusive way. The business is now exploring the rollout of a similar model for Black Americans.


Difference can be divisive – here’s how to deal with it

Data guides the design of the most effective employee benefits programs, whether it’s employee feedback, focus groups, leadership interviews, surveys, medical data, or usage statistics. However, it’s also important to recognize that in the US, different parts of the country have different attitudes to diversity. 

With this in mind, other initiatives such as DE&I training can help employees unlearn old biases, gain new perspectives and understand the value of an inclusive workplace. It’s also crucial to understand that employees’ needs and attitudes are constantly evolving, meaning it’s important to build on the initial benefits package over time. Additionally, the value of implementing these programs can be measured in numerous ways; it’s not always about return on investment.


“Are you improving productivity? Are you helping people get to a place where they are going to be able to bring their best selves to work every day? To be more committed, engaged and productive in their work-life and in their life away from the office by being able to be a better partner, a better colleague, a better team player? I think that those are things that need to be considered when you're weighing the financial investment, that the return isn't necessarily just about the dollars on the books.”

Lily Aguilar, Senior Vice President, Health Solutions, Aon


By continually listening to all employees, implementing and maintaining strategically designed benefits programs, embracing DE&I at a senior level, educating each other and enabling different communities to feel engaged and cared for, businesses are providing the tools, knowledge and support to help their employees enjoy work in a positive, productive and inclusive culture. This improves their employees’ sense of wellbeing and enhances their reputation as an employer of choice within specific communities.

For Aon’s client, having champions for these programs that come from the communities affected has been impactful. Their lived experience of inclusion can, in the long term, build value and fulfillment in the entire workforce, improving employee effectiveness.


Embracing inclusivity - the next steps for people leaders:

  • Benefits are a reflection of company culture. Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk too.
  • Ensure your benefits are inclusive to cater to the needs of diverse workforce communities.
  • Be strategic and use data insights to inform HR decision-making.
  • Keep listening and evolving HR programs to meet the wellbeing needs of all employees.

If you invest in the wellbeing of your people, they will invest in the wellbeing of your business.

[1] Social identity theory

[2] Aon’s 2021 Global Wellbeing Survey

[3] How Leveraging Your Employees’ Diverse Backgrounds Can Lead To A Better Business

[4] 2021 Aon Health Survey Report | Aon