bright arrow punching through concrete Despite everything else, employers need to remain focusedon making the right benefits decisions for themselves and employeesthis year. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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For most employers, benefits renewals and open enrollment areprobably the last things keeping them up at night these days, andwith good reason. It's hard to say what business will look like amonth from now, let alone make plans for next year.

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Thankfully, right now, benefits brokers and consultants aredoing the heavy lifting for them. In a recent BenefitsPRO webinar, industry leadersdiscussed some of the steps they're taking with their clients toprepare for an especially daunting enrollment season. Here arethree key takeaways:

Change is on everyone's mind

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wakeup call for many employees,and we can expect to see that reflected in their approachto benefits this year. "The complexity of the current climaterequires us to look at benefits through a new lens," said DesireePascual, chief people officer at Ginger. "Employees havebecome much more attuned to their needs, much more engaged inarticulating what matters to them. We expect to see much less ofthat passive, last-minute decision-making when it comes to openenrollment."

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Related: How to communicate employee benefits in uncertaintimes

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Just as employees are rethinking their benefit needs this year,many employers may be second-guessing decisions they've alreadymade. "We're definitely experiencing that," said Trey Taylor, CEOof Taylor Insurance Services. "If we've sold something that hasn'tbeen implemented, we have to go back and re-sell it. We have tosay, 'COVID makes the decision that you've already made even moreimportant.'"

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But despite everything else going on, employers need to remainfocused on making the right benefits decisions for themselves andtheir employees–even if that involves some adjustments. "Stay closeto the pulse of your people, make thoughtful and intentionaldecisions," advised Pascual.

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Indeed, employers may be more sensitive to employees' appetitesfor change this year, but that also means they're more sensitive toemployees' other needs. "We have had some clients who have asked uswhat else they can do to support employees, to make things easierfor them in these situations," added Tracy Watts, U.S. leader forhealth care policy at Mercer. "It's nice to see the empathy andcompassion come through."

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There's at least one other group receptive to change thisyear–carriers and benefits providers. "We're noticing a lot offlexibility that's coming from the carriers as far as timeframesand eligibility," said Taylor. "We're successfully making thearguments that it's maybe time to relax some of the guarantee issuerules. All of those things benefit the employee client–'Don't let agood crisis go to waste.'"

Mental health in the spotlight

The last several months have been tough on everyone, throwing"routine" and "normal" out the window. "Some of the things ourcoaches are seeing and we're also seeing, are things like thesudden shift to being fully remote, disruption of their dailyroutine, kids being home, higher levels of stress and burnout asboundaries between work and life are being blurred," Pascual said.'They're worried about job insecurity, layoffs, concern aboutfamily members and loved ones."

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As such, the need for mental health services has seen a hugespike and will continue to be even more essential. "Behavioralhealth services, although we've all been paying lip services for along time, some employers have really gone beyond and dug in," saidTeri Weber, senior vice president of Spring Consulting Group, anAlera Group Company. "We're going to see a big shift as peoplereturn to the workspace and re-engage, we're going to see that abig piece of our safety is our mental health."

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While many employers may have mental health resources in place,employees may need some reminders about them and how to accessthem. "Some people have access that's easy and simple, but othersdon't," Weber said. "Employers also need to take a pause and talkabout potentially increasing benefits here. EAPs might not beenough to get us over the hurdles of coming back to work.

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"Telehealth has been a really great thing for us in thispandemic," she added. "Telebehavioral health has been a nice step.We need to really start reducing that stigma that's associatedwith."

No such thing as too much communication

These changes can add up to positive results for employers andtheir employees, provided the right steps are taken to communicatethem to employees and help them understand the impact."It's safe to say that open enrollment will not be business asusual," Watts said. "This year more than ever, it's going to beimportant to communicate early and often."

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When preparing for those communications, Watts noted four areasthat will be particularly important:

  1. Address employee concerns with compassion andempathy. "We all realize that cost and affordability aregoing to be key drivers in decision making and it's reallyimportant that employees be able to find the key info they need,"Watts said.
  2. Prepare for an influx in questions. "Askwhether HR, call centers and managers are ready for an influx ofquestions around unique situations employees are currently facing,"Watts advised.
  3. Voluntary benefits will be more important thanever, Watts said, noting that "they help employeesmitigate financial risk, offer health and financialprotection"–issues that have become top of mind for employees inrecent months.
  4. Use the opportunity to address complianceissues. According to Watts, it's the perfect time tocommunicate with employees about not only any changes driven byfederal and local regulations resulting from the COVID pandemic,but also providing updates on things like FSAs.

It may be a lot to throw at employees, but done correctly, openenrollment this year can go a long way toward giving employeespeace of mind and helping them stay calm through whatever comesnext.

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"At this point, I don't think there is such a thing asover-communicating," Weber said. "You just never know when you'recatching that employee when they need something. If its there, ifit's been pushed out recently, they might remember seeing it."

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Emily Payne

Emily Payne is director, content analytics for ALM's Business & Finance Markets and former managing editor for BenefitsPRO. A Wisconsin native, she has spent the past decade writing and editing for various athletic and fitness publications. She holds an English degree and Business certificate from the University of Wisconsin.