cohealth chat recap: the employer’s role in providing benefits

November 22, 2011

in cohealth

so, tell me what you want, what you really, really want
i’ll tell you what i want, what i really, really want

the spice girls’ girl-power cry is the perfect summation of this month’s tweet chat topic about whether employers should give employees the benefits they want or the ones they need.

wasting no time, we launched immediately into q1: which employee benefits are essential to an employee’s physical, financial and emotional health and well-being? the group response focused on, as @raygoldberg put it, “those benefits that employers are uniquely positioned or expected to provide.” these included health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, 401(k) and other retirement products, employee assistance programs and behavioral support. of course, want vs. need is all perception when you get beyond food, shelter and water. we immediately saw this tension with disability insurance. “employees need disability insurance for financial stability, but no one ever thinks they’re the one who will be out of work,” said @carolharnett. we also recognized that “if you don’t know how to use them or their impact, benefits are a waste for everyone,” as @fitfeud and @calshana both commented. want vs. need gets even trickier with less tangible benefits. my tweet, “i also believe [essential benefits include] a company with senior leadership that one trusts, a job that fulfills and a path with opportunities” resonated with many.

when we moved into q2: which employee benefits and perks do you think employees want?, @betterworks raised the notion of customization, something employers wrestle with and is increasingly difficult with three generations in the workplace. “employees’ needs and wants change over time, and employee-driven choice allows for flexibility,” @betterworks tweeted, “but building those programs is a lot of work.”

some weren’t altogether sure the work was worth it. after @tcoughlin tweeted, “one desire is for greater employee choice rather than fixed employer-defined packages,” we discussed the pros and cons of choice. meeting the needs of all employees naturally leads to greater choice. but does greater choice lead to more confusion? @wellwork thought so, particularly “when it comes to medical,” he said. “i think a lot of employees want less choice. more simplicity.” @calshana added, “too much choice can lead to inaction according to behavioral economics research, so a balance needs to be struck.”

diffusing the tension between choice and simplicity is handled differently, depending on the benefit. speaking solely of health insurance, we know better communication and decision-support tools guide employees quickly and confidently through personal choices and lessen their feelings of ineptitude, fear and dissatisfaction. beyond health insurance, greater choice responds to the needs of a three-generation workplace and better life+work integration. “if employers make life less stressful, there will be less stress at work,” @betterworks said.

this statement segued us into q3: are there employee benefits we can offer that improve employee life satisfaction and well-being? my POV is that work-life flex is the #1 benefit employees need to improve their overall well-being. @carolharnett and @betterworks got more specific, calling out concierge benefits, such as gyms, food, dry cleaning, dog walking and even auto detailing.

talking about “wants vs. needs” begs the question, q4: should employers require employees to participate in a core set of benefits? @michellewjames shared that intel created an opt-out core with “a core set of benefits based on what we think employees need.” the opt-out approach, which we see with 401(k) plans, resonated with many, particularly with our determined core: health, disability and retirement. after that, we looked to culture and better management to guide people to what they need, such as better nutrition and more fulfilling work experiences.

we didn’t fail to recognize how our conversation echoed the national conversation on the constitutionality of an individual mandate, which led us to q5: as health care reform changes are implemented, how might employers package their benefits differently? this group felt the move to exchanges would be based on size, company and industry, and that companies may offer employees either fixed benefits with buy-up options or a fixed contribution to freely spend on a package of benefits.

ultimately, the conversation reflected a continued desire to make sure employees were safe, secure and taken care of balanced by a wariness of how rising health care costs will alter employers’ perspectives. @johnlapuma projected, “i can see required weight loss or penalty, esp if job impairment demod.” i’m not sure that’s a projection, when incentives are tied to lower BMI and bus drivers are told to lose weight or lose pay. as we move deeper and deeper into a post-reform world, it’ll be interesting to see what form our paternalistic bent takes.

read the complete transcript.

big news: this was the inaugural chat for our new co-host, carol harnett. greg and i are delighted to have carol join us. she brings a deep understanding of health and well-being, enthusiasm and fresh ideas. greg will stay on as grand poobah, ceding cohealth’s management to carol and me.

december chat date change! we’re moving december’s chat to wednesday, december 14, when we’ll be talking about financial well-being. money (that’s what i want). cohealth tweet chats are always held at noon ET. follow @co_health to stay informed and involved.


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