Employee Benefits In 2021: Embrace The Transformation

July 9, 2020

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Source: BenefitsPRO, by Emily Payne

For most employers, benefits renewals and open enrollment are probably the last things keeping them up at night these days, and with good reason. It’s hard to say what business will look like a month from now, let alone make plans for next year.

Thankfully, right now, benefits brokers and consultants are doing the heavy lifting for them. In a recent BenefitsPRO webinar, industry leaders discussed some of the steps they’re taking with their clients to prepare for an especially daunting enrollment season. Here are three key takeaways:

Change is on everyone’s mind

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wakeup call for many employees, and we can expect to see that reflected in their approach to benefits this year. “The complexity of the current climate requires us to look at benefits through a new lens,” said Desiree Pascual, chief people officer at Ginger. “Employees have become much more attuned to their needs, much more engaged in articulating what matters to them. We expect to see much less of that passive, last-minute decision-making when it comes to open enrollment.”

Just as employees are rethinking their benefit needs this year, many employers may be second-guessing decisions they’ve already made. “We’re definitely experiencing that,” said Trey Taylor, CEO of Taylor Insurance Services. “If we’ve sold something that hasn’t been implemented, we have to go back and re-sell it. We have to say, ‘COVID makes the decision that you’ve already made even more important.’”

But despite everything else going on, employers need to remain focused on making the right benefits decisions for themselves and their employees–even if that involves some adjustments. “Stay close to the pulse of your people, make thoughtful and intentional decisions,” advised Pascual.

Indeed, employers may be more sensitive to employees’ appetites for change this year, but that also means they’re more sensitive to employees’ other needs. “We have had some clients who have asked us what else they can do to support employees, to make things easier for them in these situations,” added Tracy Watts, U.S. leader for health care policy at Mercer. “It’s nice to see the empathy and compassion come through.”

There’s at least one other group receptive to change this year–carriers and benefits providers. “We’re noticing a lot of flexibility that’s coming from the carriers as far as timeframes and eligibility,” said Taylor. “We’re successfully making the arguments that it’s maybe time to relax some of the guarantee issue rules. All of those things benefit the employee client–’Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.’”

Mental health in the spotlight

The last several months have been tough on everyone, throwing “routine” and “normal” out the window. “Some of the things our coaches are seeing and we’re also seeing, are things like the sudden shift to being fully remote, disruption of their daily routine, kids being home, higher levels of stress and burnout as boundaries between work and life are being blurred,” Pascual said. ‘They’re worried about job insecurity, layoffs, concern about family members and loved ones.”

As such, the need for mental health services has seen a huge spike and will continue to be even more essential. “Behavioral health services, although we’ve all been paying lip services for a long time, some employers have really gone beyond and dug in,” said Teri Weber, senior vice president of Spring Consulting Group, an Alera Group Company. “We’re going to see a big shift as people return to the workspace and re-engage, we’re going to see that a big piece of our safety is our mental health.”

While many employers may have mental health resources in place, employees may need some reminders about them and how to access them. “Some people have access that’s easy and simple, but others don’t,” Weber said. “Employers also need to take a pause and talk about potentially increasing benefits here. EAPs might not be enough to get us over the hurdles of coming back to work.

“Telehealth has been a really great thing for us in this pandemic,” she added. “Telebehavioral health has been a nice step. We need to really start reducing that stigma that’s associated with.”

No such thing as too much communication

These changes can add up to positive results for employers and their employees, provided the right steps are taken to communicate them to employees and help them understand the impact. “It’s safe to say that open enrollment will not be business as usual,” Watts said. “This year more than ever, it’s going to be important to communicate early and often.”

When preparing for those communications, Watts noted four areas that will be particularly important:

  1. 1. Address employee concerns with compassion and empathy. “We all realize that cost and affordability are going to be key drivers in decision making and it’s really important that employees be able to find the key info they need,” Watts said.
  2. 2. Prepare for an influx in questions. “Ask whether HR, call centers and managers are ready for an influx of questions around unique situations employees are currently facing,” Watts advised.
  3. 3. Voluntary benefits will be more important than ever, Watts said, noting that “they help employees mitigate financial risk, offer health and financial protection”–issues that have become top of mind for employees in recent months.
  4. 4. Use the opportunity to address compliance issues. According to Watts, it’s the perfect time to communicate with employees about not only any changes driven by federal and local regulations resulting from the COVID pandemic, but also providing updates on things like FSAs.

It may be a lot to throw at employees, but done correctly, open enrollment this year can go a long way toward giving employees peace of mind and helping them stay calm through whatever comes next.

“At this point, I don’t think there is such a thing as over-communicating,” Weber said. “You just never know when you’re catching that employee when they need something. If its there, if it’s been pushed out recently, they might remember seeing it.”


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