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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?

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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.

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