Midway through last year, I passed my 20th anniversary working in employee benefits communication. We were in the middle of a busy year, filled with some big changes, so that anniversary went largely unnoticed. As the year wrapped up, I had some time to pause and reflect on the year—and the decades—behind me.
Twenty-plus years into this profession, and I’m still super inspired and energized by the work we do. And quite in awe of the opportunities I’ve had since starting down this path.
Admittedly, I hardly knew what I was getting myself into when I started working in employee benefits communication. Looking ahead to graduation a few months down the road, I found myself interviewing with Hewitt Associates, which had made the keen decision to recruit journalism students for the communications practice. I didn’t even know consulting was a career path, but I knew I was talking to really smart people who cared deeply about—and were inspired by—their work.
Soon, I was in conference rooms learning the differences between HMOs and EPOs and PPOs (consumerism and all its additional acronyms were not on the scene yet), so I could decipher them for the average reader. And I was learning about all the emerging technology that would help people get better information and make better decisions (this was the first dot-com boom, after all).
Twenty years later, we’re still figuring out how to decipher the ever-increasing complexity of benefits—especially the worlds of health care and financial services. And we’re still digging into the newest technology and tools to get the right programs to the right people at the right time. What’s very different now, though, is how big and broad the benefits landscape has become and the tremendous focus on using benefits to differentiate organizations and to support people and their families.
As we move into 2020, there are some really exciting topics that are top of mind and are driving our work with large organizations. Here are just a few of the things I’m most energized about and spending the most time working through.
There’s a strong appreciation of the challenge of balancing work and family. We’re also seeing an expanded definition of family being touched by benefit programs. Elder care is a big need, with lots of new programs out there to support it. Plus, we know that many, many employees are finding themselves part of the sandwich generation, where they’re caring for young kids and aging parents.
I led a great discussion on this topic at the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference last year; it’s a subject that will be driving a lot of benefits strategies and communications campaigns this year.
Getting the full advantage of personalization will continue to be a big focus—and a big challenge—this year. Last year’s NBGH survey of large employers showed that key strategies to control health care costs will include deploying more telehealth and virtual health care services, Centers of Excellence for high-cost conditions, and getting more personal in communicating to and engaging employees.
There are so many ways to take advantage of the technology that allows us to personalize an experience, to get the right benefit program to the right person at the right time. But personalization isn’t going to be a silver bullet, and engagement is still going to be a big challenge. I recently wrote about this in Workforce.
Well-being programs are still getting a lot of attention, and leaders and employees are big fans of the programs. Optum’s 10 Years of Health and Well-Being at Work survey showed that 80% of medium, large, and jumbo companies expect their spending on health and wellness programs will increase over the next 3 years. And 90% of employers are concerned about the level of access workers have to mental health services. Businessolver’s 2019 State of Workplace Empathy found that 90% of employees believe employers should do more for employee well-being, and HR professionals (85%) and CEOs (94%) overwhelmingly agree. Well-being programs are a reason that 70% of employees stay at their jobs, up from 50% 5 years ago, according to a survey by Alight Solutions.
The definition of well-being will continue to expand. We see a big focus on stress and resilience and mental health, as well as purpose and fulfillment and professional development (because most people need to feel that they’re growing to truly be in a state of well-being). These are rousing topics that will continue to get a lot of attention.
Family leave is also drawing a ton of attention—as it should. But there’s also a big push for more flexible work environments. A Unum study ranked the most desired employee benefits, and the top 4 were:
Citing professional development among their top benefits shows that employees think about all aspects of their work experience together. And a desire for broader leave programs (like paid family leave and sabbaticals) goes hand in hand with flexibility.
We are doing a lot of work around explaining leave programs and supporting people before and after taking a leave. These programs can’t create the desired business outcomes unless they become part of a company’s culture and are more than just another benefits program.
The employee experience has certainly been an industry buzzword in the past several years, and that’s going to continue. As HR and benefits leaders, you are becoming increasingly aware that archaic processes and disconnected systems aren’t just a little painful; they are detracting significantly from the value of everything else you do. Everything about working for your organization sends a message that either reinforces or detracts from your value proposition. We see more and more organizations really embracing that reality and rethinking systems and infrastructure from the ground up. These are not easy changes—but they’re ones that have a big impact.
Elevating the employee experience goes hand in hand with embracing new communication channels and creating standout campaigns and experiences to help capture attention and build trust. We see a growing number of companies interested in creative decision-support tools, standout video production, and new media like augmented reality and virtual reality. In fact, we’re building our first augmented reality experience now and can’t wait to share that concept more broadly.
Along those same lines, expect to see more high-end print materials in the next few years. Because so much is digital, the right pieces in print can really stand out. Have you noticed that some online brands now have print catalogs, too? There’s also been an uptick in high-end print magazines.
We are getting requests for—and having a lot of fun producing—unique print materials. Whether it’s exploring unique shapes and folds for home mailers or new approaches like magazine-style newsletters, the goal is to produce something that the recipient wants to hold and hang on to.
All in all, there are a lot of exciting topics to tackle in the new year. What else is top of mind for you? We’d love to hear from you!
We’re proud to work with organizations that value their people. If you want to learn more, we’d love to talk.
Jennifer Benz, SVP Communications Leader, has been on the leading edge of employee benefits for more than 20 years and is an influential voice in the employee benefits industry.