Workers feel less loyal to their bosses and at the same time say good benefits—including those they pay for—increase job satisfaction. Unfortunately, employers don’t get the message about the importance of those benefits, and the disconnect could be causing unnecessary workplace turmoil and lost productivity.

A fascinating study by MetLife says employee loyalty in the U.S. has plummeted, even as workers increasingly rely on their bosses for benefits that help them cope with today’s economy and prepare for the future.

While 59% of employers surveyed last year felt a strong sense of loyalty toward employees (a seven-year high), the study reveals that today’s bosses underestimate the power of leveraging their benefits programs to boost employee loyalty.

You’d think it would be obvious that offering benefits that make life easier and less stressful might prevent employees from heading out the door. That should be clear, given today’s economic climate, the unemployment situation and growing worries, especially among Gen X and Gen Y, that they won’t be able to rely on Social Security as a major part of their retirement income.

But the MetLife study found that loyalty has now hit a seven-year low. Only 42% of employees feel a strong sense of loyalty to their employer this year. And get this: One in three hopes to work for somebody else in 2012. Among Gen Y employees, it’s one out of two.

Meanwhile, 58% of employees say benefits are an important reason to stick with their employer, and the figures are higher for younger workers (62% for Gen X and 63% for Gen Y). The correlation between benefits satisfaction and loyalty is clear: 61% of employees who are very satisfied with their benefits feel a strong sense of loyalty to their employer compared with 24% who are very dissatisfied with benefits.

Unfortunately, corporate benefits execs haven’t gotten the memo.

MetLife’s study finds that, while employers understand how salary and wages, advancement opportunities and company culture influence employees’ feelings of loyalty, “they continue to underestimate the power of leveraging their benefits program.”

For example, 66% of surveyed employees say health benefits are an important factor in their loyalty, but only 57% of employers believe that to be the case.

Interestingly, that gap widens when it comes to retirement and non-medical benefits. For instance, 59% of employees say retirement benefits have a very strong influence on their loyalty, but only 42% of employers realize this. A majority (51%) of workers say the same about benefits like dental, disability and life insurance, while only 32% of employers think so.

Nearly half (49%) of employees say they are counting on workplace benefits to help with their financial protection needs. For Gen Xers it’s 55%, and for Gen Y it’s 66%. The good news is that 60% of employers recognize that economic conditions are creating additional opportunities to leverage benefits programs to achieve their objectives, and only 10% of companies plan to reduce benefits this year.

The study offers some fairly surprising conclusions about the attitudes of different generations regarding the future and their retirement needs.

Younger workers are more risk averse when it comes to investments, with 81% of Gen Y employees wanting guarantees that offer stable, if lower, returns compared to 76% of baby boomers. In 2003, one third of employees age 21 to 30 were very concerned about running out of money in retirement. Today, that’s 52%.

These workers, however, do not expect benefits to be handed to them on a silver platter.

“Gen Y and Gen X recognize that they will be shouldering more of the responsibility for their long-term security but are looking to employers for help even if they have to pay for some of these benefits themselves,” says Dr. Ronald Leopold, MetLife vice president.

The study reveals that 62% of Gen Y and Gen X employees are willing to bear more of the cost of their benefits rather than lose them. Also, 57% would like to have a wider array of voluntary benefits offered in their workplace, compared to 43% of boomers. Some 62% of employers agree that employee-paid benefits will become a more important strategy in the next five years than they are today.

MetLife’s analysis indicates a growing number of employers are building a generational perspective into their benefits programs. “But there is still room to do more,” the report says.

The study also reveals the advantages of providing help to employees for financial education and planning. It shows that Gen X and Gen Y workers “have a stronger appetite for financial education in the workplace than might be expected given their age and life stage.”

The report, MetLife’s 10th annual Study of Employee Benefits Trends, is available at www.metlife.com/benefitstrends.