Featured in today's newsletter:
- The benefits employers are prioritizing for 2023.
- Shrinking parental leave.
- One question to feel more engaged.
The latest virus forecast: The US had a 13% decrease from two weeks earlier, with 91,500 new Covid cases on Friday.
The business impact: US gross domestic product fell at an annual rate of 0.6% in the second quarter of 2022, less than the 0.9% the Commerce Department had previously predicted, as consumer spending proved to be slightly stronger than initially reported.
Focus on How Employers Are Approaching 2023 Benefits Planning
As organizations look ahead to open-enrollment season, there’s no shortage of complicating factors for them to consider in their benefits planning, from legislative attacks on abortion access and trans rights to the ongoing childcare crisis and pandemic-induced burnout.
To understand what employers are prioritizing in their benefits for the coming year, we reached out to Tami Simon, global corporate business leader at the benefits and human-resources consulting firm The Segal Group. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
What are some of the trends or common themes you’re seeing from organizations as they think about benefits for 2023?
The key drivers that we're seeing relate to flexibility. There’s a lot of conversation going on right now related to paid time off, unpaid time off, different leaves—parental leave versus maternity or paternity. So that's the big, big category. People are also talking a lot about mental-health support and access to the types of support networks that people need. Caregiver support—I can't tell you what an enormous pull that is right now. There are a lot of people taking care of a lot of other people, whether that is parents, kids, other dependents, and that is impacting their ability to work. And without a doubt, given the recent Supreme Court case [Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization], we've got a lot of employers asking about access to reproductive benefits, access to women's health care, what role their travel policy in their group health plan may or may not play.
Beyond those hot-button issues, one fundamental theme that we're seeing this year: There are all these discussions right now about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a lot of employers are thinking about, ‘Well, have we really thought about our health plans or our retirement plans through a diversity lens?’ So making sure that your employee benefits actually reflect that DEI policy or strategy that your organization has. A lot of 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 literacy and education to help people properly save for retirement and have financial stability and security, if they maybe didn't get that kind of education from home or from their school system?
Can you say more about how you’re seeing employers react to the Dobbs decision? How are organizations thinking about things the ruling will affect, like fertility benefits or access to gender-affirming care?
Most of the data that we have from our health-plan survey shows that fertility benefits have been increasing for quite some time. What is meant by fertility benefits really reflects a lot of how progressive the particular employer is, and also their location—what fertility benefits mean for an employer in California might be quite different than what fertility benefits mean for some employers in the South. But I certainly think overall we're 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's really no one-stop shopping. It’s dependent on the organization. Employers have their own philosophical belief systems. But we're certainly getting questions about it, because HR is PR. What's happening out there impacts the workplace, whether employers like it or not. At the very least, they have to be aware that questions are coming. Saying something will impact them. Saying nothing will also impact them.
A lot of our clients realize that what they put out for their open-enrollment season gets out into the public. People, buyers, analysts, investors, etc., they see what organizations are standing 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 starting to hold you accountable. I would encourage organizational leaders to be both internally and externally consistent.
How broadly is mental health generally defined? Does it mostly refer to things like access to therapy, or are employers also including 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 to not put everything under the mental-health umbrella, only because that can be a little confusing. Really focus on what it is that you're trying to address. If you're trying to address burnout, that's a workforce resourcing issue, right? So how are your people working? Where are they working? Focus it on that from a management perspective.
If you are talking about stress, take a look at yourself as an organization and your role in that stress, but then understand that people have entire lives that they're bringing to the office or to the factory. Maybe the stress has nothing to do with you. So making resources available to deal with any of that, if someone's having marital stress or there's been a death or they're terrified of Covid. Maybe the stress is financial, in which case having a financial advisor could be the best thing. You can call a lot of things mental health, but the question is, what are the issues that you're really trying to address? And then think about how that impacts your population and make resources available to deal with those issues.
What are you seeing in terms of caregiver support?
I think that elder caregiving is becoming much more prevalent. We're starting to see some organizations including access to benefits for the caregivers of the elderly. One example: Often something that is extremely time-consuming is when a child becomes the executor of their parents' estate. And now there are some employers that are expanding the legal benefits in their employee assistance programs to address that. How many people know what it even means to be an executor of an estate? They need help.
Caregiving in terms of kids, we're seeing a lot of different things. We have had a childcare crisis in this country for a really long time, but the pandemic certainly highlighted that crisis at a new level, and organizations are realizing that parents need help on a variety of fronts. So we're seeing childcare subsidies. One of the things that I would love to see from a public policy perspective is for the dependent-care limit, which is currently $5,000, to go up. If, as a country, we believe that putting money away to pay for childcare expenses is a worthwhile cause, then those dollars should keep up with the cost of childcare. Also having access to emergency daycare, if something happens with your initial daycare provider or they get Covid or if your kid is sick. So that goes along with flexibility for the individual, more PTO for purposes of childcare needs. It’s not just dollars. It's also the flexibility and understanding by their manager that sometimes stuff happens. Dollars help, though.
Cost of education would probably be in third place. We're talking about childcare accounts where you can put money away, helping the people that have student loans, the student-loan relief under 401k plans, opening or helping provide seed money for 529 plans so that parents can start to save for their children's college education. Name a way, and I could probably name some employers or clients that 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, meetings in person, virtual meetings, webinars, maybe a blog. I am a huge advocate of examples, examples, examples. And just making sure that you're answering the questions that your people have when they're sitting at their kitchen table with their families, because that's actually what matters.
One other issue that I'm hearing more conversations about going into this open enrollment season is, how do you engage people who have just picked the same benefits year over year over year? And the answer is, maybe rinse and repeat is just fine, because you're offering what that particular population needs. But if you're really enhancing your benefits and you don't want them to rinse and repeat, then you shouldn't either, in the way you're reaching out to them and trying to get their attention. Because this stuff is complicated. It takes a lot of energy. So being thoughtful about that is something else that we're hearing a lot about, without overwhelming people, because I think everybody's got information overload right now.
Read a full transcript of our conversation, including more about understanding the benefits workers want and the social contract between employers and employees.
What Else You Need to Know
Employers are shrinking parental leave. As companies look to restore pre-pandemic ways of working—and to cut costs in response to the economic downturn—some are reducing the amount of paid time off they offer to new parents.
- According to a survey of 3,000 employers from the Society for Human Resource Management, 35% of companies now offer maternity leave beyond the legally required minimum, which varies from state to state, and 27% do the same for paternity leave. In 2020, those figures were 53% and 44%, respectively.
- The current numbers suggest a reset back to the parental-leave norms that companies had in place pre-Covid: In 2019, before the pandemic hit, 34% of employers offered more than the minimum for paid maternity leave, and 31% did so for paternity leave. SHRM noted in a summary of its findings: “Employers seem to be dialing back on expanded parental leave opportunities since returning back to more normal operations.”
- Companies also cut back on paid leave for adoptive parents, with 28% offering the benefit compared to 36% in 2020.
- Last year, 23% of private-sector employees had access to paid family leave. The US is one of six countries without a national paid-leave policy, a lack that disproportionately affects women, low-wage workers, and Black and Hispanic workers.
- Nationwide, just over half of workers are eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Eleven states and Washington, DC, have paid-leave laws on the books.
Companies are increasingly tapping independent workers in response to the talent shortage. As employers struggle to fill open roles, more than half of hiring managers who use freelancers say they’ve relied on them more heavily over the past year, and two-thirds anticipate using them more in the next two years, according to a recent report from freelancing platform Upwork, which surveyed 1,000 hiring managers in the US.
- While 69% of managers surveyed by Upwork said they plan to add new employees in the next several months, some 60% said they’re having trouble finding the right people for open roles.
- The US currently has 0.6 available workers per open job. Data from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that half of employers are reducing headcount, even as 38% point to problems with hiring and retention as a major business risk, a situation that Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader of PwC’s People and Organization practice, described as a “labor market paradox.”
- More than a third of employed Americans currently identify as independent workers, up from 27% in 2016. In a McKinsey survey earlier this year, independent workers were more optimistic about both their own career prospects and the state of the economy than those in full-time roles, despite the fact that they were also more concerned about job stability.
- While the legal definition of an independent worker varies across the country, multiple states in the past few years have introduced increased protections for freelancers.
The White House’s announcement of its student-loan forgiveness plan is shining a spotlight on student debt. While some 7% of US employers—including Google, Fidelity, and Nvidia—currently offer help with student-loan payments as an employee benefit, companies are increasingly making plans to do more: Around a third plan to add repayment assistance for 2023, while more than half say they’ll offer counseling for debt refinancing, up from around a quarter last year.
- President Biden’s executive order, issued earlier this week, eliminates up to $20,000 of federal debt for borrowers with qualifying incomes and extends the loan-repayment moratorium through the end of the year.
- The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 allows companies to make annual tax-exempt contributions of up to $5,250 toward workers’ student loans through 2025.
- Some 57% of employees say their employer should help them pay off their loans, and nearly three-quarters would switch jobs to work for a company that did so, according to a survey earlier this year from financial-benefits firm Betterment at Work.
The debate around “quiet quitting” has sparked a new conversation about “quiet firing.” As quiet quitting, the TikTok-coined term for declining to go above and beyond at work, remains a contentious idea, some workers are pointing out that employers have long had their own version: a lack of engagement in their employees’ well-being that ultimately pushes them out.
- A recent post on the Reddit forum r/antiwork declared that “quiet quitting is the only acceptable response to quiet firing,” with users sharing experiences of being “quiet fired” in the form of stagnant wages, lack of paid time off, and burnout-inducing conditions.
- Over the past several days, quiet quitting has been described as everything from an assertion of healthy boundaries to “a step toward quitting on life,” with some arguing that the trend is simply a new term for an old practice.
Return to workplace speed round:
- In the Hudson Valley, where an influx of remote workers from New York City has strained the housing market, a growing number of local employers are building employee housing or otherwise helping their workers find homes.
- Some 72% of corporate real estate leaders believe the office remains “critical to doing business,” but 43% say they plan on increasing investment in flexible workplaces, according to a JLL survey of over 1,000 commercial real estate leaders.
- KPMG is cutting its New York office space by over 40%, while Lyft is reducing its office footprint nationwide, with plans underway to sublease 44% of its current workspace in San Francisco, New York, Seattle, and Nashville.
- Ahead of Apple’s September 5 return-to-office deadline, employees have launched a petition protesting the company’s return-to-office plan, amassing more than 900 signatures.
- Pension and retirement funds are offloading office buildings, predicting that values will fall with the continued popularity of hybrid and remote work. For private real-estate funds, the share of investments in offices has dropped to 23% from 34% in 2019, according to the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Give potential managers a trial run. Before moving individual contributors onto a managerial track, give them a chance to test-drive managing while receiving guidance and support from upper-level colleagues. Then, get feedback from the candidate, peers, and mentors about whether a manager or senior individual contributor role is a better path forward.
- Find your flow (of water). Spending time near water can help us feel more energized and less anxious. To recharge more fully, look to natural sources (like beaches and creeks), urban water (like canals and fountains), or even domestic water (like pools and bathtubs) to have a swim, dip your toes, or just watch the ebb and flow.
- Structure your buddy system. Any onboarding buddy for new hires should understand the expectations of the role, as well as the metrics for success. Provide teams with a framework that outlines criteria for buddy selection, responsibilities, best practices for managers to work with buddies, and a system for evaluating performance.
- Ask, “Who am I helping?” If you’re feeling checked out, give yourself a motivation boost by doing an inventory of the people you help through your job. That list can include clients and customers, colleagues, community, capital, partners and vendors, and loved ones.
The office return has ushered in a new wave of pandemic pets. Some workers who are just now beginning to leave Fido home alone during the workday have hit on a solution for their animals’ loneliness: adopting a second furry friend to keep the first one company.
The in-office Friday can be an unsung delight. While it remains the least popular day for in-person work, a small group of employees are discovering the joys of a nearly-empty workspace, seizing the chance to blast music, dim the lights, or simply enjoy some total peace and quiet.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.