A comprehensive and holistic benefits package provides your employees a sense of security and support. In fact, Nick Bellanca, VP of employee health and benefits at Marsh McLennan Agency, an employee benefits, retirement, and business insurance consulting firm, says, “In difficult economic times, benefits are more important than they are during a boom.”
Sure, a company can differentiate itself by offering greater compensation, a remote or hybrid work schedule, or a more attractive job title to retain and attract talent. However, Bellanca explains, when you’ve taken the time to address and meet your employees’ needs through your benefits plan, the overall value will likely outweigh a competitor’s offer. “They’re not only recruiting that individual but their entire family during that process,” he says.
At Ally Financial, a digital financial services company, the workforce has a generous array of benefits options that are both inclusive and family-oriented.
“We care for our employees so that they can care for our customers and their communities, and this drives our business results and adds shareholder value,” explains Gwen Gollmer, Ally’s executive director of benefits. “The lift that this gives to the culture… where [employees] feel that connection between themselves and their employer, is golden.”
For this reason, benefits specifically designed to enable your employees to build their families — such as fertility treatments, adoption or surrogacy support, and parental leave — are top of mind. They help alleviate emotional, physical, and financial burdens on your employees, and also offer the opportunity to show your commitment to creating an inclusive and equitable workplace. It’s no wonder then that while only 32% of companies currently offer these types of benefits, according to Mercer’s Health & Benefits Strategies for 2023 report, another 31% plan to add them this year.
Here’s what you need to know to keep pace with your competition and cultivate a caring culture that drives business results.
Understand Your Goals and Your Employees’ Needs
Brittany Bono, MPH, senior associate of Total Health Management at employee benefits consulting agency Mercer, says they first look to understand an employer’s goals when strategizing benefits design.
“Sometimes [employers] are responding specifically to employee requests to add specific benefits,” Bono says. “Sometimes the goal is to be really comprehensive, and so instead of just offering fertility, maybe they’re also going to enhance their pregnancy support or their lactation support.”
With either approach, understanding your end goal should be your first priority — and it should be centered around what your employees need.
At Ally, Gollmer partners closely with chief diversity officer Reggie Willis during the design of new benefits. With more than half of employees engaged in at least one employee resource group (ERG), she says, “we often have opportunities where the ERGs come to ask us to talk about specific types of benefits we have, and we go knowing that it will be a two-way conversation.”
These opportunities allow Gollmer and her team to communicate Ally’s current benefits and collect feedback on what other benefits would better meet their needs. “We get a lot of communications from employees when they’re using a benefit that they wish was designed differently,… [when] it isn’t working as they expected it should, or when they just have an idea of something that they think would be a good fit,” says Gollmer.
For example, employee feedback led the company to change its coverage for egg freezing. Before 2023, it was only covered in conjunction with fertility treatment. Now, it allows for an additional egg or sperm-freezing cycle with a year of storage.
“We had several employees inquire specifically about preserving their options to build a family in the future,” Gollmer explains. “This was an opportunity to support individuals who delay having a family for personal or financial reasons.”
Bellanca recommends employers assess the existing gaps in their coverage and whether they’re offering support for all stages of the family journey. This research can be complemented by insights gained from exit interviews, especially if a company is experiencing retention or attraction issues. “Many employees now expect robust family benefits from their employers, but the employer isn’t necessarily aware of that until it’s too late,” he notes.
Strive for Benefits Equity
When designing benefits, employers “should be thinking about how equity might be perceived,” Bono says. “Is a dollar maximum the most appropriate versus a cycle maximum, for example? Is it more appropriate to combine the adoption and surrogacy lifetime maximum separate from the fertility, or do you want to have one big bucket of family-building support?”
In 2019, Ally removed the requirement of an infertility diagnosis to expand who could receive fertility benefits. They also introduced surrogacy benefits and increased the adoption reimbursement, allowing up to $35,000 for both, which can be used twice. Gollmer says the company did so “to equalize the available benefits and address that families are formed in many ways.”
“That’s just become more important as the traditional, linear homogenous workforce has changed,” says Bellanca. “Organizations are looking to support their multidimensional workforce in new ways.”
In fact, Marsh McLennan Agency has its own DEI center of excellence, where consultants work with clients to identify benefits options that are inclusive and equitable. Bellanca says an example of this is expanding the parameters of parental leave so that parents of all genders and all family types, including adoption and fostering, are included.
Working towards benefits equity, your coverage should also address the higher maternal mortality rates among Black and Native populations. To offer additional support for high-risk individuals, Bono suggests employers consider coverage that allows access to midwives, out-of-hospital birth options, and doulas. Doulas, who are non-clinically trained birth support individuals, can guide an employee through their birth plans and advocate for them when communicating with providers.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
No matter how great your benefits plan is, it’s unlikely to be successful unless you communicate it. Bellanca says he works with many employers who feel they offer great benefits, but “the frustration from HR is that the employees don’t seem to always understand that.”
He recommends employers take the time to communicate benefits effectively not only during annual enrollment and to new hires but consistently throughout the year. Making benefits top of mind is critical so that employees understand what’s available to them when they need it most, Gollmer notes.
Packaging benefits communication and offering it in a checklist format is among the strategies Bono suggests. Checklist items for parental leave may include adding your new baby to your health insurance policy and checking in with your manager about your return to work plans.
Corina Leu, senior associate, Total Health Management at Mercer, recommends having a communication plan that’s delivered via multiple channels, including email, social media, webinars, and Q&A sessions. And when aimed to create awareness, communication doesn’t need to be dry. The communications team at Ally runs a series of memes on the company intranet to share details on a particular benefit, which Gollmer says is a great way to get employees’ attention.
The C-suite can also get involved in communication efforts by sharing personal stories and leading by example in benefits use. “Fireside chats with leadership to destigmatize and break down some of the barriers to accessing care,” Bono says, is a great way to involve leadership.
To get this right, manager training is crucial, explains Leu. Managers should receive training on the programs and benefits the company offers, as well as how to communicate the benefits with their employees in ways that show they’re supportive.
Also remember to choose your words carefully and with inclusivity in mind. An example of this is using the term parental leave instead of maternity and paternity leave. “Employers really need to ensure that the communications of the benefits really speak to all employees, including those who are underrepresented,” Bellanca says.
Consider Costs and Compliance
Many of the newer family-building benefits are not nearly as expensive to provide as you might think. Still, Bellanca notes that “as with many of the traditional benefit offerings, many things need to be integrated in phases, just due to cost and practicality.”
For example, “there are compliance and tax considerations associated with certain elements of fertility treatments,” says Bono. These include choosing to waive the definition of infertility or offering egg-freezing benefits.
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Employers with self-funded medical plans have “much more flexibility around cost containment solutions, what you’re covering, what you’re not covering,” says Bellanca. “You, as the employer, [are] paying out the claims, so you have much more flexibility around the overall plan design.”
On the other hand, employers with fully insured medical plans are more likely to run into challenges when looking to increase or expand coverage.
“Some of our clients prefer to keep their fertility benefits carved in with their health plan,” Bono explains. Others “have some benefits through the health plan, and then they have some benefits with a third-party vendor.” She says employers are also choosing to use lifestyle spending accounts (LSAs) to allocate a specific dollar amount to be used for adoption or surrogacy since these benefits are not part of a health plan.
Each situation is different in terms of coverage type, benefits goals, and employee needs, which is why Bono recommends involving legal and tax counsel in benefits conversations to ensure everyone is comfortable with the decisions made.
Measure Your Impact
Taking the steps to understand your employees’ needs, identify ways to offer inclusive family-building benefits, and communicate them in different ways across your company speaks volumes about the strong internal culture you’re looking to build. Measuring the impact provides insights into what’s working, what’s not, and where you can adjust so that your investment proves worthwhile.
Determining the right metrics to measure, however, is “a hot topic,” Bellanca says. “There’s really a jungle of different solutions out there in the market… how do you ultimately determine that these solutions have been effective and reached your goals after you’ve spent all the time, money, and effort in implementing them?”
Despite the challenges, both Bellanca and Bono recommend paying attention to claims outcomes. When working with third-party vendors, Bono says, “we see employers focusing [on] performance guarantees and service level agreements… at the outset of the contract, negotiating guarantees related to clinical outcomes.” She says these outcomes can be things like “single embryo transfer rate for in vitro fertilization cycles, looking at live birth rates, [and] looking at other measures of pregnancy outcomes or fertility outcomes that are set by the CDC.”
Bellanca notes that when using this as a measurement, it’s important to have two to three years of data. He also recommends paying attention to your employees’ engagement and enrollment in particular benefits and listening to their feedback on new programs.
At Ally, Gollmer and her team monitor their employee engagement surveys, exit surveys, and new employee surveys. “We make sure that we continue to get those really high ratings from employees on the benefits package as a whole,” she says.
“When we rolled out the parental leave, we heard from employees who said, ‘this is a game changer for me,’” says Gollmer, and notes that others said they were proud to work at a company that supported employees in that stage of life. New parents are able to take up to 14 weeks of paid parental leave, with the option to break up those weeks or take 10 weeks consecutively and transition back to the office at a 50% schedule for four weeks. While quantitative metrics are important, she says that the intrinsic value of the investment is reflected in the culture of a company that cares.
Gollmer says it’s important that leaders not allow short-term challenges, such as economic uncertainty, to distract them from their long-term plans for building company culture and business success. “Some of these benefits take a while between idea and design and figuring out administration,” says Gollmer. “You really need to be focused and stay the course as you’re going through that process.”