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For about two decades, economists have been holding up roadmaps directing workers toward small businesses. They argued that small business was the place of innovation, where American dreams of prosperity and upward mobility still were possible, and that to depend of big business was to make a decision as reckless as booking a stateroom on the Titanic.

Small business was the future, plain and simple.

But there is new evidence that working at small firms is no more satisfying or liberating than working anywhere else.

The 9th annual study of employee benefit trends by MetLife shows that businesses with less than 500 employees face a pressing issue of retention after a significant decline in employee loyalty.

Two and a half years ago, MetLife reports, 68 percent of workers at small businesses felt a very strong sense of loyalty to their employers. That figure is now only 44 percent. An estimated 34 percent say they are looking to change employers.

Meanwhile, all seems fine in the eyes of employers. MetLife reports that the owners and operators of small businesses believe that 54 percent of their workers are loyal to them, or about the same amount as in past years.

MetLife says that during the depressed economy most small businesses have held the line on employee benefits. There were slight declines in medical, dental and life insurance coverage. Benefits such as prescription drug coverage and disabilities support were unchanged.

Yet, half of all small business workers dissatisfied with their benefits say they hope to be working for another company soon. Of small business employees who are happy with their benefits, 72 percent say they feel a strong loyalty to their employer.

“The MetLife study is a reality check for smaller employers who may still be viewing their workforce through rose-colored glasses. Economic recovery will not only present opportunities for employers but also for top performers,” says MetLife’s Jeffrey Tulloch. “One area small businesses may overlook is whether their benefits programs are designed as strategically as they could be. It is not necessarily about spending more, but optimizing offerings to attain three top objectives: employee retention, increased productivity, and cost control.”

MetLife says that voluntary benefits can often appease small business employees. About half of all employees find it important to have benefits such as life, dental and disability insurance through their employers, even if they have to absorb the cost of those benefits.

Retirement issues were also a great concern to workers in small businesses. MetLife says it has found that helping workers plan and save for retirement can be a strong motivation factor in keeping them happy on the job. “Employees can mitigate some of their financial stresses and obtain greater peace of mind, and employers can reap the benefits of a more productive and loyal workforce,” says MetLife’s Ronald S. Leopold. “There is a business value to both a physically and financially healthy employee.”

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