The blurred line between human resources and public relations

AAs organizations look ahead to open enrollment season, there are no shortage of complicated factors to consider in their benefits planning, from legislative attacks on abortion access and trans rights to the current child care crisis Y pandemic-induced exhaustion.

To understand what employers are prioritizing in their benefits for the coming year, we reached out to tami simon, global corporate business leader at human resources and benefits consultancy The Segal Group. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

What are some of the common trends or themes you see in organizations when they think about 2023 benefits?

The key drivers we are looking at relate to flexibility. There’s a lot of talk right now related to paid time off, unpaid time off, different leaves: parental leave versus maternity 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 this is right now. There are many people who are taking care of many other people, be it parents, children, other dependents, and that is affecting their ability to work. And certainly, given the recent Supreme Court case [Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization]we have a lot of employers asking about access to reproductive benefits, access to women’s health care, what role your travel policy may or may not play in your group health plan.

Beyond those hot topics, one fundamental issue that we’re seeing this year: There’s all these discussions right now about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a lot of employers are thinking, ‘Well, have we really thought about our health plans or our retirement plans through a diversity lens?’ So make sure your employee benefits really reflect your organization’s DEI policy or strategy. Many employers are struggling with ‘What does diversity have to do with my health plan?’ Well, do you have providers in your network that represent your employee population? Do you have enough financial knowledge and education to help people adequately save for retirement and have financial stability and security, if they may not have received such education at home or in their school system?

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Can you say more about how you are seeing employers react to the dobbs decision? How do organizations think about things the ruling will affect, like fertility benefits or access to gender-affirming care?

Most of the data we have from our survey of health plans shows that fertility benefits have been on the rise for quite some time. What is meant by fertility benefits really reflects a lot on how progressive the particular employer is, and also its location: what fertility benefits mean to one employer in California can be quite different from what fertility benefits mean to some. employers in the South. But I certainly think that, in general, we are seeing an increase in fertility benefits, as well as support for gender reassignment surgery. And that’s all support, it’s not just time off or health benefits, but also mental health benefits, prescription drugs.

That said, there really isn’t a one-stop shop. It depends on the organization. Employers have their own philosophical belief systems. But we’re certainly getting questions about it, because HR is PR. What happens out there impacts the workplace whether employers like it or not. At the very least, they should be aware that questions lie ahead. Saying something will shock them. Not saying anything will also affect them.

Many of our customers find that what they offer for their open enrollment season reaches the public. People, buyers, analysts, investors, etc., see what organizations stand for and hold them accountable. And so the distinction between internal and external communications is also becoming less and less. People other than your workers are beginning to hold you accountable. I would encourage organizational leaders to be consistent both internally and externally.

How broadly is mental health generally defined? Is it primarily about things like access to therapy, or do employers also include things like PTO and flexibility under that umbrella?

Mental health can be a huge, broad 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 that can be a bit confusing. Really focus on what you are trying to tackle. If you’re trying to address burnout, that’s a workforce resource issue, right? So how are your people working? Where are they working? Focus on that from a management perspective.

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If you’re talking about stress, look at yourself as an organization and your role in that stress, but then understand that people have entire lives that they lead to the office or the factory floor. Maybe stress has nothing to do with you. So making resources available to deal with some of that, if someone is having marital stress or there’s been a death or they’re terrified of covid. Perhaps the stress is financial, in which case having a financial advisor might be best. You can call a lot of things mental health, but the question is, what are the issues you’re really trying to address? And then think about how that affects your population and make resources available to address those issues.

What are you seeing in terms of support for caregivers?

I think elder care is becoming much more prevalent. We are starting to see some organizations that include access to benefits for elderly caregivers. One example: Often a time-consuming thing is when a child becomes the executor of her parents’ estate. And now there are some employers who are expanding statutory benefits in their employee assistance programs to address that. How many people know what it means to be executor of an estate? They need help.

In child care, we’re looking at a lot of different things. We’ve had a child care crisis in this country for a long time, but the pandemic has certainly highlighted that crisis to a new level, and organizations are realizing that parents need help on a variety of fronts. So we’re looking at childcare subsidies. One of the things that I would love to see from a public policy perspective is the dependent care limit, which is currently $5,000, increased. If, as a country, we believe that saving money to pay for child care is a worthwhile cause, then those dollars should cover the cost of child care. Also have access to emergency childcare, if something happens with your initial childcare provider or you get Covid or your child is sick. That goes along with the flexibility for the individual, plus PTO for child care needs. It’s not just dollars. It’s also your manager’s flexibility and understanding that sometimes things happen. Although the dollars help.

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The cost of education would probably be in third place. We’re talking about child care accounts where you can save money, help people who have student loans, student loan relief under 401k plans, open or help provide seed money for 529 plans so parents can get started. save for child care. University education. Mention one way, and you could probably name a few employers or clients who are thinking about it.

What are some best practices for employers in terms of communicating their benefits so employees actually use them?

More is more. Repetition helps. Using a variety of different communication strategies is really important: website, text, in-person meetings, virtual meetings, webinars, maybe a blog. I’m a big proponent of examples, examples, examples. And just be sure to answer the questions your people have when they’re sitting at the kitchen table with their families, because that’s really what matters.

Another topic I’m hearing more conversation about this open enrollment season is, how do you engage people who just elected the same benefits year after year? And the answer is, maybe rinse and repeat is fine, because it’s delivering what that particular population needs. But if you’re really upping your profits and you don’t want them to be flushed and repeated, then you shouldn’t either, in the way you approach them and try to get their attention. Because this is complicated. It takes a lot of energy. So being thoughtful about that is another thing that we’re hearing a lot about, without overwhelming people, because I think everybody has information overload right now.

Read a full transcript of our conversation.included more on understanding the benefits workers want and the social contract between employers and employees.