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Insights and perspectives to shape your 2022 benefit strategies

Health and Benefits
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April 1, 2022

Explore our latest thinking on the issues and trends that influence benefit strategies. Unlock opportunities to develop more equitable and affordable benefit programs.

Employers are looking to reframe their benefit programs in response to a range of factors including a tight labor market and inflationary pressures along with the growing importance of environmental, social, governance (ESG) as well as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues. Moreover, organizations are keen to address the pressing needs of a workforce exhausted by an ongoing pandemic. The following insights and perspectives can help employers stay ahead and shape actionable benefit strategies.

  1. 01

    Support all employees working in the shadows of COVID-19

    While science is delivering vaccines and therapies against COVID-19, the virus continues to deliver plot twists in the form of variants, breakthrough infections and long COVID-19. Consequently, it is essential for employers to prioritize keeping people safe not just for the health of their workforce and the greater community but also for the economy. Geographies that have been able to better control COVID-19 have had faster economic recoveries. This may involve having employees decrease their travel and in-person encounters when they perceive the risk to be high even without formal lockdowns or rules.

    Additionally, employers will need to consider the impact of long COVID-19 on their workforce. Our 2022 Global Benefits Attitude Survey reveals that 37% of employees who contracted COVID-19 are still experiencing long-term effects, which can contribute to higher disability claims. These employees report higher levels of depression or anxiety and absenteeism compared with those who had COVID-19 and recovered, and those who never had COVID-19. Employers can support employees suffering from long COVID-19 by providing accommodations such as reduced hours, time off and job restructuring.

    Controlling the virus also requires a greater focus on health equity. There have been higher rates of infection and death among people of color and service workers. Some studies have shown that people of color were less likely to get effective COVID treatment, and those with lower incomes and less education are less likely to be vaccinated. This highlights the urgent need for better plans to tackle healthcare disparities and social determinants of health.

  2. 02

    Move from equal to equitable

    In 2022, employers will increasingly focus on the E in DEI. While organizations may be providing equal benefits to their employees, they will need to assess whether their benefits are equitable, thereby supporting the unique needs of a diverse employee population.

    Mental health is an area where employers will look to shift the emphasis in benefits from equal to equitable. For example, this might involve the following scenario:

    • From equal: All employees have access to a mental healthcare benefit through their employee assistance program (EAP) and health plan.
    • To equitable: All employees have access to affordable, culturally-competent mental healthcare providers who understand their backgrounds and unique needs in the communities where they live and work.

    To achieve equity in benefits, employers can start by understanding the unique needs of their employee population through engagement with their employee resource groups and by analyzing social determinants of health data to identify the economic and social conditions that influence employee health outcomes. Analyzing critical performance data for healthcare (e.g. preventive care rates, access to quality providers) by gender, race and salary can also unlock opportunities to improve health equity.

    Furthermore, employee listening via virtual focus groups and surveys can enable employers to better understand the unmet needs of different employees. For example, employers need to communicate about benefits in ways that are accessible to all employees including those with disabilities(e.g., blind, disabled, etc.). Finally, it is essential for employers to work with their health insurance carriers and program administrators to improve access to affordable and culturally-resonant healthcare services.

    Along with health equity, employers should assess whether their retirement benefits are equitable and how an employee’s salary level affects their ability to save. Given that lower-wage employees may not be able to save for retirement as easily as others, employers may consider nonelective contributions in addition to matching contributions. Also important to consider is financial education, which can help employees find ways to save and become comfortable making investment decisions.

  3. 03

    Provide proactive support for behavioral health including mental health and substance use disorders

    The pandemic exacerbated existing mental health and substance use issues in the workplace, stoking a crisis that organizations could not ignore. But too many employers found themselves operating in a reactive mode. In contrast, there will be a greater emphasis on proactive behavioral health support in 2022. This may involve having physicians screen for mental health issues with reimbursements for screenings based on incentives and outcomes. Additionally, employers will have the opportunity to improve the delivery of mental healthcare by tapping into new vendors and virtual care. Regarding substance use issues, employers will look to address the stigma around getting help for these disorders and improve access to treatment options including through virtual care programs.

    Employers can better equip managers to identify issues in the home (e.g., childcare/eldercare challenges etc.) that can contribute to employee stress at work. Managers can help develop a workplace culture that supports these employees through policies such as flexible time off, flexible scheduling and enhanced family benefits, including paying for caregiving services or childcare benefits (e.g., daycare discounts).

    Overall, it will be important for employers to be proactive about ensuring that providers in their networks not only accept new patients but also provide timely access to care, and are able to address more specialized issues such as eating disorders, gender identity etc.

    Finally, it is critical for employers to monitor efforts to restructure the mental health and substance use care delivery systems within their states and ensure that their employee plans benefit from these efforts.

  4. 04

    Improve healthcare affordability for employees

    Talent challenges stemming in part from the great resignation will force employers to rethink member affordability in 2022. In particular, employers will want to assess affordability through a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) lens to identify subsets of the employee population that are financially disadvantaged and determine how they can better support these employees. At the same time, given the current inflationary environment and employees catching up on deferred care, cost pressures on benefit budgets will constrain efforts to enhance benefits significantly.

    Employers should consider the following measures:

    • Understand the current state and identify gaps in member affordability. Assess medical plan affordability holistically including employee contributions and out-of-pocket costs based on plan elections and actual claims. Using a DEI lens, identify financially challenged employee segments and geographies.
    • Identify cost-effective actions to support employees. From a plan design and budget perspective, employers have some options for addressing these concerns: 1) adjust the plan design so that lower-wage employees receive more generous benefits at the expense of higher wage earners; 2) change budget allocation, shifting funds from other benefits or pay to healthcare programs; 3) reduce healthcare spend by achieving efficiency gains through the delivery system and/or provider arrangements.
    • Evaluate the medical plan in the following areas: subsidization (e.g., link HSA seed to salary), plan design (e.g., offer low- or no-cost coverages, reduce out-of-pocket maximum), incentives and expanded choice. Also consider the broader Total Rewards package, including voluntary benefits, and financial wellbeing education and counseling, and evaluate short-term financial needs in the population.
      Employers may also consider special plan or benefit options for lower-wage employees including:
      • High-performance networks (HPNs) to provide access to a narrow network of higher-value and lower-cost providers
      • Primary care first models that provide practitioners with incentives to address complex, chronic conditions early to avoid costly hospital admissions
    • Assess gaps in affordability when it comes to disability and life insurance, and take measures to mitigate employees’ risk exposure. For example, an employer might offer long-term disability insurance as a voluntary benefit.
  5. 05

    Separate the signal from the noise in analytics

    2022 will see a more focused approach to healthcare analytics that involves filtering out less relevant, noisy data and prioritizing high-impact data that delivers insights on topics that are top of mind for employers. Examples of this type of data may include metrics on hospital readmissions of patients with behavioral health issues (i.e., mental health and substance abuse disorders) within 30, 60 or 90 days of discharge or patients with multiple emergency room visits within a 12-month period with a primary diagnosis related to behavioral health issues. Such data may reveal gaps in care and support during and after moments of crisis, helping employers understand how they might provide employees with the support they need to re-engage in their daily lives.

    Analytics will also play a more important role in the evaluation of point solutions. Increasingly employers want to see the supporting data behind vendor return-on-investment (ROI) claims. Member experience will be a critical pillar for success that ultimately determines sustained meaningful engagement and ROI.

    Data will help employers make informed decisions about which solutions to offer employees and where to cut back due to poor or non-existent ROI or value on investment (VOI). This requires more scaled approaches and more rapid response where employers can assess all of their programs – not just a few a year.

    Ultimately, each company needs their own measures that tie back to key performance indicators (KPIs) and that matter the most to their organization.

  6. 06

    Align benefits with your organization’s climate strategy

    Addressing climate change has emerged as a people imperative as well as a critical business issue. In the recent WTW HR and Climate Strategy Survey, 95% of employers indicated that it was important to integrate climate strategy in their employee value proposition. So where do we see the climate change commitment converge with people strategy and more specifically benefits? Climate change considerations are ingrained in each wellbeing pillar:

    • Physical. Understanding environmental exposures that differ by geography such as air pollution and radiation, and that these exposures pose risks to physical health
    • Emotional. Supporting employee mental health by acknowledging climate anxiety and trauma from climate-related events and displacement, and providing crisis interventions following natural disasters
    • Social. Fostering community support and employee engagement in climate change initiatives
    • Financial. Prioritizing sustainable investing and clean incentives
  7. In 2022, a growing number of employers will offer a range of benefits with a focus on climate change including HSA and 401(k) funds with an environmental, social and governance focus, leave to prepare or recover from extreme weather (e.g., hurricanes, tropical storms etc.) and sabbaticals enabling employees to work for the environmental group of their choice while continuing to earn their pay and benefits. In developing initiatives with outside parties, it is imperative to work with partners that demonstrate a standard of ethical behavior.

  8. 07

    Bring everything together in the employee experience

    It’s vital to build an ecosystem that brings together programs and services, providing employees with an end-to-end journey for specific issues. Take the case of an employee wanting to start a family. An employer can link all their relevant programs to create a seamless experience for the employee. These programs may include: fertility benefits , prenatal support and education, medical plan and birth, short-term disability and leave benefits, parental leave benefits, financial wellbeing programs and mental health services. The result is a connected ecosystem that facilitates the employee’s journey.

Listening strategies are critical to understanding employee needs and the issues that are top of mind. Tools ranging from pulse surveys to virtual focus groups give employees a voice and provide employers with insights to build a robust ecosystem of programs and services.

Supporting this ecosystem is an integrated information hub, a one-stop trusted source of benefits information that all employees can access when and how they choose, whether working remotely, in hybrid mode or in a physical office location. Employers are partnering with vendors to develop thoughtful strategies that bring program information and resources together without overwhelming employees.

Communication plays a key role in this ecosystem, enabling employers to connect with a diverse workforce at relevant touchpoints to make benefits information accessible and easy to understand. Effective communications usually starts with a well-organized benefits and wellbeing editorial calendar that connects people to programs. This calendar should enable vendors and point solution providers to understand their role in helping to execute the communication strategy by providing content, emails, mailers, etc.

During the pandemic, many employers accelerated their digital strategies and use of digital engagement tools to help employees make informed benefit decisions as they faced challenging times. In the coming year, employers who introduced text messaging, marketing emails, podcasts, virtual benefits fairs and one-stop employee experience platforms will continue to use those tools to support employees as they adapt to new ways of working with COVID-19 in the background. In addition, digital engagement tools can provide valuable analytics to help employers adjust their strategy as appropriate and continue to ensure a meaningful employee experience.

Unlock the opportunities

Our insights and perspectives can help employers unlock opportunities to develop more equitable, affordable and competitive benefit programs. Start by considering the following measures:

  • Develop a plan to tackle health disparities in your employee population and make all your benefits equitable.
  • Focus on preventing mental health and substance use problems through proactive use of employee listening activities (e.g., surveys, focus groups), physician screenings and as appropriate, advocating for the needs of employees at the national, state and local government levels.
  • Take steps to identify and bridge healthcare affordability gaps, especially for lower-wage workers, through subsidization, low-cost access and plan design.
  • Determine how your benefits can be better aligned with your organization’s climate change strategy.
  • Develop a robust, ongoing digital engagement strategy to provide your employees easy access to benefits and program information enabling them to make informed decisions, and improving awareness and engagement.

These measures will enhance an organization’s ability to develop benefit programs that play a key role in attracting, engaging and retaining a productive workforce.

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