The blurred line between human resources and public relations
AAs organizations anticipate open enrollment season, they have no shortage of complicating factors to consider in their benefits planning, from legislative attacks on abortion access and transgender rights to child custody crisis and pandemic-induced burnout.
To understand what employers are prioritizing their benefits for the coming year, we reached out to Tami Simon, global business leader with benefits and human resources consulting firm The Segal Group. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
What common trends or themes do you see among organizations when thinking about benefits for 2023?
The main drivers we observe are related to flexibility. There’s a lot of discussion going on right now about paid leave, unpaid leave, different leaves — parental leave versus maternity leave or paternity leave. So that’s the big, big category. People also talk a lot about mental health support and access to the kinds of support networks that people need. Caregiver support—I can’t tell you what a huge draw that is right now. There are a lot of people looking after a lot of other people, whether it’s parents, children, other dependents, and it affects their ability to work. And no doubt, given the recent Supreme Court case [Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization]we have a lot of employers asking questions about access to reproductive benefits, access to health care for women, what role their travel policy in their collective health plan may or may not play.
Beyond these burning questions, a fundamental theme we’re seeing this year is that there’s all this discussion going on right now about diversity, equity and inclusion, and a lot of employers are asking, “Well, have we really thought about our health plans or pension plans with diversity in mind? So make sure that your employee benefits actually reflect your organization’s DEI policy or strategy. Many employers wonder, “What does diversity have to do with my health insurance plan?” Well, do you have vendors in your network that represent your employee population? Do you have enough financial literacy and education to help people save properly for retirement and have financial stability and security, if they may not have had that kind of education at home or in their school system?
Can you elaborate on how you see employers reacting to the Dobbs decision? How do organizations think about things the decision will affect, such as fertility benefits or access to gender-affirming care?
Most of the data we have from our health plan survey shows that fertility benefits have been increasing for some time. What is meant by fertility benefits largely reflects the progressiveness of the employer in question, as well as their location – what fertility benefits mean to an employer in California can be very different from what benefits mean. fertility for some employers in the South. But I certainly think overall we’re seeing an increase in fertility benefits, as well as support for gender reassignment surgery. And all of that is help—it’s not just time off or health benefits, but also mental health benefits, prescription drugs.
That said, there really is no one-stop-shop. It depends on the organization. Employers have their own philosophical belief systems. But we certainly get questions about it, because HR is public relations. What happens there impacts the workplace, whether employers like it or not. At the very least, they should be aware that questions are coming. Saying something will impact them. Not saying anything will also impact them.
Many of our clients realize that what they post for their open enrollment season is made public. People, buyers, analysts, investors, etc., see what organizations stand for and hold them accountable. Thus, the distinction between internal communication and external communication is also becoming less and less blurred. People other than your employees are beginning to hold you accountable. I would encourage organizational leaders to be consistent both internally and externally.
How commonly is mental health defined? Is it primarily referring to things like access to therapy, or do employers also include things like strength grip and flexibility under that umbrella?
Mental health can be a big, wide umbrella that means a million different things, or it can mean actual psychological or clinical assistance. I would try to encourage employers not to put everything under the mental health umbrella, just because it can be a bit confusing. Really focus on what you are trying to address. If you’re trying to combat burnout, it’s a workforce resourcing issue, isn’t it? So, how do your employees work? Where do they work ? Focus on that from a management perspective.
If you’re talking about stress, look at yourself as an organization and your role in that stress, but then understand that people have whole lives that they take to the office or the factory. Maybe stress has nothing to do with you. So making resources available to deal with all of this, if someone is suffering from marital stress or if there has been a death or if they are terrified of Covid. Maybe the stress is financial, in which case having a financial advisor might be the best thing. You can call a lot of things mental health, but the question is, what issues are you really trying to solve? Then think about the impact this has on your population and make resources available to deal with these issues.
What do you see in terms of caregiver support?
I think elder care is becoming more and more prevalent. We are beginning to see certain organizations, in particular access to benefits for caregivers of the elderly. An example: Often, something that takes a lot of time is when a child becomes the executor of his parents. And now, some employers are expanding the legal benefits of their employee assistance programs to address this. How many people know what it even means to be an executor? They need help.
Caregiving in terms of children, we see a lot of different things. We’ve had a child care crisis in this country for a very long time, but the pandemic has certainly brought that crisis to a new level, and organizations are realizing that parents need help on many fronts. So we see subsidies for child care. One of the things I would like to see from a public policy perspective is that the limit for dependents, which is currently $5,000, increase. If, as a country, we believe that setting aside money to pay for child care is a worthy cause, then those dollars should follow the cost of child care. Also have access to emergency childcare, if something happens with your original childcare provider or if they catch Covid or your child is sick. So it goes hand in hand with flexibility for the individual, more PTO for childcare needs. It’s not just dollars. It’s also their manager’s flexibility and understanding that sometimes things happen. Dollars help, though.
The cost of education would probably be third. We’re talking about child care accounts where you can put money aside, help people who have student loans, student loan relief under 401k plans, open or help provide start for 529 plans so parents can start saving for their children. college education. Name a way, and I could probably name employers or clients who think about it.
What are best practices for employers in terms of communicating their benefits so that employees actually use them?
More is more. Repetition helps. It’s very important to use a variety of different communication strategies: website, text, in-person meetings, virtual meetings, webinars, maybe a blog. I’m a big proponent of examples, examples, examples. And just make sure you answer the questions your people have when they sit at their kitchen table with their families, because that’s actually what matters.
Another question I’m hearing more and more conversations about this open enrollment season is: how do you engage people who have just chosen the same benefits year over year? And the answer is, maybe rinse and repeat is fine, because you’re delivering what this particular population needs. But if you’re really enhancing your benefits and you don’t want them to rinse and repeat themselves, then neither should you, in the way you reach out to them and try to get their attention. Because this stuff is complicated. It takes a lot of energy. So thinking about that is another thing we hear a lot about, not overwhelming people, because I think everyone has information overload right now.
Read a full transcript of our conversationincluding more on understanding the benefits workers want and the social contract between employers and employees.