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The HR Scoop

Employer Benefit Programs: Trends and Fads

Season 3
October 28, 2021

Andrea Herron 00:01
Have you ever wondered how a company is able to offer unlimited time off or be a pet friendly office? Curious how HR leaders manage the well being of remote or essential workforces? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Hi, I’m Andrea Herron, head of people for WebMD health services. And I’d like to welcome you to the HR Scoop. On this podcast, I talk with other HR leaders to explore the world of unique employee benefits, and about the challenges of managing unique workforces. Because well being isn’t a one size fits all approach.

On the season three premiere of the HR scoop, I’m joined by Pamela rich director at Business Group on Health. We talk about the unique challenges facing employers as workforces evolve the expansion of employee benefits programs, and she tells us what current employer well being trends have impressed her the most. Before we get started, I was hoping you would tell us a little bit about Business Group on Health and what you do there.

Pamela Rich 01:06
Yeah, sure, I’d be happy to. So Business Group on Health is a nonprofit membership organization located in Washington DC, although I haven’t seen the office as much as I would have liked to over the past year and a half. But our members are large self insured employers and their health industry partners. Our large self insured employer members are household names and the people that we interface with those members are primarily the folks who are in charge of developing and deploying their health benefits and wellbeing strategies. And their health industry partners are those that are helping those helping our members with those strategies. Now, my role specifically at Business Group on Health focuses on workforce well being strategies. And included in that I focus on mental and emotional health. I am responsible for CO producing our podcast, which focuses on the most important health and wellbeing issues facing employers. I assist with the conference content at our annual conference that happens in the spring, and really focus on developing resources and thought leadership pieces that assist our members with the challenges that they’re tackling at their companies.

Andrea Herron 02:37
Awesome. That sounds like a full time role for sure. And one that adds a lot of value to your group there.

Pamela Rich 02:43
Yeah, it’s it’s really great. And it’s fantastic engaging with our

Andrea Herron 02:47
members. I just feel like we have to acknowledge that these are difficult times. And there’s so much going on that for everyone regardless of the rigors of the work schedule. You know, it’s just tough to be a human right now. And this space and incorporating Total Wellness and meeting people where they are is critical. And it is a business priority right now. Because if people don’t have somewhere or some way to cope, and feel like they’re being supported, they can’t focus on their work. I mean, things are not normal things are not fine, right? And if we just act like they are, do your job, do your job, that’s not going to work long term. It’s not working for a lot of people right now. So, you know, that’s one reason again, I’m happy to have you here to talk about those trends. And I’m sure you see kind of that broad spectrum across all types of employers. So what unique challenges are employers trying to tackle? And I suppose it could be timely, but also just in general?

Pamela Rich 03:48
Yeah. So two things, I think, come to mind when asking about the challenges that employers are trying to tackle right now. And those are achieving health equity, and then also relatedly, addressing social determinants of health. And I think those two things come to mind for me, because we have seen over the past year or two really deep understanding of employers about the importance of both of these issues, to achieving their ultimate business outcomes and the outcomes that they would like to see for their employees, which is health and well being. I would say that they are challenges though, because I think employers also know that in order to really tackle these successfully, it’s going to take more than just the implementation of a singular benefit or program or multiple benefits and programs for that matter, to really get to success. And it’s going to require things like assessing current benefits and programs looking at the Oregon Is ational culture potentially collaborating across the organization, working with entities outside of the organization, including potentially community partners. So really, it’s going to take a whole host of action items to again, get to success when it comes to achieving health equity and social determinants of health. But I do think the good news is that change really is a foot. When we recently asked our employer members their perspective on health equity, the majority said that health equity was a top concern for them when it comes to their health and well being strategies. So I think that that’s really promising and that we will start to see real change in the coming years.

Andrea Herron 05:47
And that seems like a new trend, you know, to even have that kind of language and awareness. So you know, do you have any other examples of benefit trends that have popped up? Or I guess, on the flip side of benefit that’s fading, or isn’t quite as in demand as it once was?

Pamela Rich 06:04
Yeah. So in thinking of a trend that has recently popped up, what comes to mind there is the focus on caregiving. Now, I think we would all agree that caregiving as a topic is not new employers have been focused on caregiving for years. But I think since the pandemic started, all employers have been thinking really strategically, really thoughtfully about how they can support all of the employees within their workforce who are caring for a loved one, whether that would be an aging parent, or a child at home, who has to do virtual learning. So there’s a lot of movement in that space. That’s happened over the past year and a half or so. So we’ve seen our employer members implement things like caregiver leave backup child care, they’ve updated their PTO policies to make those more flexible, giving employees additional days or greater flexibility in using those days. And then implementing supports for caregivers as well, knowing that caregivers are experiencing really difficult mental health issues as well, a lot of stress associated with their role,

Andrea Herron 07:18
right? And caregiving isn’t so narrowly defined anymore. I mean, in the past, we might have said, caregiving, we generally most of the time, see new parents, or people with young children who need a flexible schedule or something. But, you know, in the past year and a half, especially that the whole concept of caregiving has exploded. And I have noticed to employers trying to scramble to figure out what is the role of the employer? How do we support people it used to be that’s a personal problem, your childcare situation, but it was to a level where schools are closed, you know, you can’t visit your aging parents or they can’t get the support they needed. So it really took on a life of its own.

Pamela Rich 07:59
Yeah, and I remember having conversations with caregiving experts in the past, about the fact that not many caregivers would have identified as a caregiver prior to the pandemic. And now all of the sudden, the fact that it’s so front and center that we are have all of these caregiving responsibilities. I think people now are starting to identify themselves as caregivers, which I think is really positive. Yeah, it’s so interesting. Mm hmm. And then when it comes to a trend that we’ve seen, decrease, I would name outcomes based incentives as a part of a decreasing trend. We have tracked that over the years and saw a decline. And I think that decline was due to a number of factors, administrative complexity, probably equity issues, as well as the fact that I think outcomes based incentives for some was inconsistent with the direction of their well being strategies, which we’re evolving to be a lot more open to personal discretion, personal choice, and about more than just one’s physical health.

Andrea Herron 09:14
I think that’s a really interesting one, because how do you quantify what is an outcome? Because a personal health journey is just exactly that it’s a personal journey. So I completely understand and have and do use incentives for staff. But what does that really mean? And where are you going to drive the most engagement and outcomes varies based on your staff, where they are, what they need, what your benefits package looks like, you know, are we clicking the box to say we did the thing to get the dollars or are you actually driving changes in behavior and that is way harder to do. So you know, I think that’s really, really interesting as we think about how to design the wellness packages, it really has shifted quite a bit

Pamela Rich 10:00
100%. And I think we now see that incentives are offered for a larger, or a broader category of things than they probably were in the past. So earning incentive dollars for doing things like volunteering in your community, or going through a financial wellbeing assessment, or meeting with a financial well being planner. So I think that really helps to take well being strategies from being employer led and very prescriptive, to much more being in the hands of employees in a very positive

Andrea Herron 10:40
way. Yeah, I think it’s a great, it’s a great transition for getting that holistic view. Mm hmm. So similarly, maybe so we don’t feel alone here. What else? Have you seen as the biggest room for improvement or need in the wellness benefits? Space?

Pamela Rich 10:56
Oh, this is a great question. So I think one of the biggest areas of opportunity for employers when it comes to their well being strategies, their health and well being strategies is probably utilizing the building or the work environment to promote health and wellbeing. And we had the privilege at Business Group on Health a few months ago, to interview Dr. Joe Allen, who is the director of the healthy buildings program at Harvard, about the role that healthy buildings play, and not only reducing disease transmission in the case of COVID-19, but how buildings can be designed in pursuit of health and wellbeing. And he is just so fascinating, we learned so much from him, including the fact that we spend 90% of our lives indoors, yet, often we don’t think about the effect that our indoor spaces have on our cognitive functioning have on our overall health have on our well being. But that if you take the built environment into consideration, you can truly promote your own health and well being your productivity and your performance, in case in the case of work. So I think that there is really a lot of green space for employers to think about, especially as they have employees come back into the office, how they can design their workspaces to optimize health and well being. And what Dr. Allen told us was that really, things don’t have to be expensive. To create a healthy building movement, it can be as simple as optimizing your air filtration systems, bringing greenery into the building to promote creativity, just tweaks that every company can probably make. And that would make a big difference on the lives of employees. So I think that there’s opportunity there. And that’s one area that I am looking forward to seeing unfold in the future.

Andrea Herron 13:05
Yeah, I have to admit, I have not thought about it in that way. That is interesting. And to think we spend 90% of our time indoors, it’s kind of depressing, but also it kind of makes sense just between sleeping and work. And it’s different indoor locations, but still indoors. So that is definitely something to think about. And then as we go back, yeah. What can you add some plants? Or what is your filtration system? Are people using co working spaces? You know, we think of the aesthetics. Is it comfortable? Does it look nice? Do I feel safe here, but you’re talking more making it healthy, not just aesthetically pleasing? Which is a different approach to it. And I think that’s a really interesting perspective.

Pamela Rich 13:49
Yeah. And it made me think a lot about, okay, it’s, it’s wonderful to have a workplace that you’re going into every day that has optimized all of the foundations of a healthy building, as Dr. Allen would call them. But what about your home environment, too, if you know these things, about what it takes to create a healthy environment? How should employees also be thinking about that for their home offices, as well. And I think that’s another area to watch as employers, of course, returned some employees to the workplace, but also in thinking about this hybrid workforce, right, where some people are going to be at home a few days a week, and then there’ll be in the office a few days a week. So how do you promote health and well being in both of those spaces?

Andrea Herron 14:39
Pivoting a little bit? I’m curious what has impressed you about how some of the employers you’ve worked with have pivoted to meet those needs have their kind of unique employee groups, if they’re any different examples are things that you’ve been kind of pleasantly surprised or impressed with.

Pamela Rich 14:56
The two things stand out for me as really impressed pressive areas where employers have stepped up, I think the speed with which they’ve rolled out virtual care options to employees has been terrific. And I know for many employers, they’re planning on keeping those virtual care options in place, even once the pandemic wanes. The other space that I think has been really impressive is the way employers have stepped up to meet the mental health needs of employees. So, so much has been said already about the mental health state of people throughout the US and the world for that matter during the pandemic. And I think employers have really implemented multi fold benefits to try to address everything from anxiety and depression to loneliness to how some parents were grappling with pediatric mental health issues for kids who are really disrupted by a lack of school and social interaction. And again, I think this increased awareness of mental health. And then also, the increased focus on mental health with benefits programs policies, is something that will likely stay well beyond the pandemic, which is fantastic. And then there’s one more area that I would love to talk about too. And that’s how employers have really keyed in to the employee voice and to what employee needs are, what their challenges are really taking the time to hear from them directly. Whether that be about social justice issues, their mental health concerns, their caregiving challenges. I’ve heard a lot of create example, creative examples from our members about the ways they have organized formal and informal opportunities for employees to give feedback, and then take that feedback and turn it into action.

Andrea Herron 17:03
This is a fascinating area to me, because in all my years, being in the HR world, you know, this is all new. I mean, never before has it been expected of an employer to really quite frankly, care or provide benefits, aside from the legally obligated ones around caregiving, around mental health, around social determinants of health or social justice. You know, those were more community based things. And, you know, I’ve talked about this before, but I just, it’s fascinating to see the turn of what employers are expected to provide, and how it actually does impact the workforce. Whereas before they were more separate, there was more work in home. And now with chat and email, and video, that line is so blurry, there’s not really even a line anymore. And then you add on, you know, the expectation of him from employees, that their employer does have these benefits and that they are listening, they are taking the feedback, and it’s the employee voice that drives, you know, what, what is offered, versus just having kind of a standard platform of benefits, you know, dental, vision, medical, you know, so on and so forth. So, I think it’s promising as far as a holistic wellness approach. So I’m really glad to hear that you’re saying that too. But it is new.

Pamela Rich 18:26
Yeah, I think that there has been recognition in recent years that the well being of employees truly is a Workforce Strategy issue. And that to meet the business outcomes that you care about, as an organization, your employees have to be healthy and well. And that healthy isn’t just physical health, but it includes those other dimensions. And in the current space, too, with so many of us working from home, you can’t ignore that we’re whole people and that we have lives outside of work. How many times during this pandemic has my son showed up on camera or my cat walked across the screen, it’s hard to ignore that we are people with lives outside of just our jobs, and that those things affect us when we walk into the workplace.

Andrea Herron 19:17
They do. And I think they allow people to create better relationships, because you are seen as a person who has a life, not just someone who didn’t respond to my email within two hours, you know, I mean, you’re the whole person because we can see it. I think that’s interesting. And then also it’s, you know, a recruitment and retention strategy, quite frankly, because yes, you want which once the employees get there, you want them to be productive and on and, and satisfied and engaged and creative, but even to get them hired. I mean, the the recruitment world is just in a topsy turvy Tailspin right now. Because of all the comings and goings and people having reflected on how they want to spend their time and Where do they want to put their energy going forward? And there are plenty of jobs to choose from. So it is certainly a candidates market. And you know, what you have or don’t have in your benefits package could be a big determinant in whether or not you land that candidate.

Pamela Rich 20:15
Right. And I think what you just also triggered for me to is this growing emphasis on engaging managers in being proponents of the health and well being strategy, and really helping managers be there for employees in a way that we may not have imagined in years past. So helping managers understand mental health conditions so that they could identify potential employees who may not be doing well and be able to direct them to appropriate resources, or knowing where to direct employees, should they have a specific health and wellbeing concerns, really, as managers as stewards of the employers, overall culture has become really important. So that’s been an interesting trend to watch as well.

Andrea Herron 21:14
Yeah, I completely agree, the scope of what being a manager means has really shifted. So I guess on the trend note, I’m curious, from your perspective, you know, what benefit trends or just general market trends? You know, do you think that we might see in the next, I don’t know, two to three years? Mm hmm.

Pamela Rich 21:34
So there’s a few things that I’m looking out for, I think, as we spoke about before, I’m continuing to look for strategies that increase the emphasis on employee choice. So thinking about well being strategies that give employees an array of options for them to improve their health and well being and really leaving it up to them to engage in the activities that feel most meaningful to them, and to their families. And that’s something that we’ve already started to see happen, but am anticipating that unlikely accelerate. So that’s one to watch. I’m also eager to see how employers will engage within local communities. So I think that tracks back to our conversation earlier about health equity and social determinants of health. I think right now, what employers are really focused on when it comes to social determinants of health is focusing on their social needs. And by that, I mean focusing on the specific needs employees have as a result of the communities in which they live. So they may be focused on food insecurity. And they’re helping employees address that by offering take home meals or grocery discount cards. So they’re helping employees with their needs, but not necessarily affecting the communities in which they live. What I’m looking out for in the future is if employers are going to start getting involved in those communities, whether it’s through partnerships with local public health agencies, other nonprofit groups, whatever it may be, that’s something that I have my eyes perked out, excuse me that I have my eyes on. And then, again, I think this comes back to the conversation we were just having, but curious about how employers will alter their well being strategies in light of having a hybrid workforce. So how do you really account for the fact that many people will be in the office some days a week, and then at home some days a week, some will remain fully at home? Some will remain fully in the office, how do you create parity? How do you ensure that each population really is getting what they need? So those are a few that I’m I’m looking out for, and I think some will be quicker than others? For sure. Probably the focus on employee choice will be the first one we truly see to come to fruition.

Andrea Herron 24:05
Yeah, that one is interesting, because if you think about it, messaging, what we see the news, we get the photos online, the sources we see it’s all curated, it’s personal, the ads that pop up because you thought about something yesterday, which is creepy, but it totally happens. It’s you know, it’s only a matter of time before employees are thinking, Well, why do I just have to have a standard benefit package? Why can’t I pick and choose what works for me? So businesses that can push that forward quicker, I think will have better returns on again, retention, loyalty, satisfaction, all of those things. And then yeah, the other couple you mentioned, I think, are very interesting to watch. And it’s part of the reason we do this podcast is to see what unfolds. What are other people doing let’s share ideas because we’re all going through this together, especially the hybrid piece and just up leveling what we offer and how we offer it You know, we should work together because we’re all, we’re all trying to accomplish the same thing. And that’s to take better care of the people that work with us.

Pamela Rich 25:10
Yeah. And then I would just mention one more thing. And this is not really a crystal ball type of trend. But I think this is coming much more immediately, which is how employers grapple with the delays and care and Miss screening opportunities that have happened as a result of the pandemic. I know our members are thinking already about how they’re going to handle this delayed cancer diagnosis, for example, and really, very unfortunate effects of the pandemic. So I think a lot of attention will be paid to those particular topics in the next 12 months, if not sooner, you’re

Andrea Herron 25:50
exactly right. Because I know almost, well, we’ll just say most companies saw a decline in annual visits, annual checkup in the billing and every, you know, utilization of health care benefits last year, because people weren’t going to their annual physicals and getting those those appointments in. So I agree, there will just naturally be an uptick in that. So that should be a focus that everyone is thinking about how to encourage those, just regular check ins, and because they are still important, you know, as as people can work them in. So to wrap up, you know, I like to ask all of our guests this question. And so, could you tell us something about yourself that most people may not know? Okay, so

Pamela Rich 26:31
I’m going to let you in on a secret that I don’t think any of my coworkers know, I know, my friends know this, but maybe not my coworkers. So I love to buy vintage and antique furniture. And most of the things in my house are either antique or vintage. And my husband has a love hate relationship with this hates that I’m always scrolling for new finds, but loves when I can score a deal. And we have no beautiful pieces, either on the wall or in the case of our dining room table. Have a beautiful piece to showcase.

Andrea Herron 27:09
I love it. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. That’s right.

Pamela Rich 27:11
That’s what I’m always saying to him. We’re helping the environment by me doing this.

Andrea Herron 27:15
See, and you got your own unique look, you know, this isn’t off the shelf, which you know, no, no disrespect to anyone who has that. Look, you know, I’ve bought my fair share of things that at the stores as well, but that’s really cool. Yeah, it’s been awesome. Well, thank you again for joining us. It was a really great conversation, and we appreciate your time.

Pamela Rich 27:36
Thank you for having me. It’s been fun.

Andrea Herron 27:40
Thank you for listening to the HR scoop podcast. Please take a moment to rate and subscribe on Spotify, Apple, Google, or directly at WebMD health services.com/podcasts

The HR Scoop

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Season 2
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