Extended reality promises a holistic training experience, experts say

Employers are beginning to embrace the use of virtual environments for employee training and development programs. Are you? Read this blog post from HR Dive to learn more.


As more employers embrace virtual environments for training, tech gurus are fine-tuning the technology to be more accessible to employers. Some organizations have developed apps to take employees through soft skills training; others customized VR experiences to suit their specific training needs.

As the potential of AR and VR technology continues to unfold, and workforces reap benefits from using it, employers will need to decide how to best implement the tech in their own learning and development initiatives.

Why merge AR, VR and L&D?

When it comes to virtual training, XR (extended reality, which includes VR and AR) may the best option for employers with tricky needs, according to Toshi Anders Hoo, emerging media lab director at the Institute for the Future. "XR training is valuable in situations when the experience is too expensive, too far away, too infrequent or too dangerous," he told HR Dive. "It allows users to experience pretty close to what it's like, and that includes the physical and psychological experience."

XR isn't just for standard operating procedures, Anders Hoo added; it creates a holistic understanding, providing emotional preparedness for difficult situations. He cited Walmart's well-known VR training, which prepped employees for Black Friday shopping, but noted that the applications can be even more varied. XR can acquaint learners with the emotional experience of public speaking, uncover hiring biases or replicate the pressure of a surgical operating theater, he said.

AR and VR can also help employers better understand workers' strengths and weaknesses, Amy Vinson, associate director, safety analytics, health and safety at Tyson Foods told HR Dive in an email. It can also enforce better, safer working habits. "[Trainees] can put on goggles and virtually practice operating our plant's robotic arm to safely stack heavy boxes in high areas," she said. "It helps team leaders better understand training areas that may require extra attention."

XR can also be "an empathy engine," Anders Hoo noted, by providing anyone with a perspective on an unfamiliar challenge. "Consider a medical emergency: the learner can be the doctor, watching a patient bleed, or a loved one, helpless to assist. These scenarios have major implications for critical thinking and to help learners expand their points of view."

How does it work for learners?

The biggest challenge for classroom learning is retention, according to Shawn Gentile, training content development and delivery leader at Vitalyst, because the majority of knowledge is lost over time. Simulation-based learning, however, can be done continuously, said Gentile; "Learners can go right back into the simulation and continue to build on their competence.

And when L&D pros are examining why training is or isn't working, the tech can eliminate some of the guesswork, he said. "With simulation-based training, you can see where they're not learning and why, targeting learning points to increase retention." Accessing this data removes deviation points and allows training to focus on the organization's objectives, he added. Uniformity is another consideration: Different instructors may perform training differently, but the consistency of AR and VR training provides better knowledge, higher retention rates and a better ability track failures and update training to meet objectives, according to Gentile.

Anders Hoo said that XR, unlike video-based training, is more than the mere "illusion of learning." Videos can give learners the false perception the task they're learning will be as easy in real life as it looks, which can create performance gaps and discourage some, Anders Hoo said. However: "If you show someone a video of someone juggling," he said, "but they're holding the juggling club, they're much less likely to be discouraged when trying to learn the skill."

Forecasting the future

One concern to consider, according to Anders Hoo, is data privacy. XR captures biometric data that can identify a person by how they move their hands and head. In a one-hour VR session, he said, thousands of data points are captured that can potentially be used to later identify someone in, for example, a surveillance camera. Next-generation XR will have eye tracking capabilities and may even be able to track your heart rate and emotional state, he said. "The same systems that allow us to have more immersive experience are the same that make for very sophisticated surveillance systems," he said. As with all new HR tech, L&D pros will have to remember to ask the right questions.

For Anders Hoo, one of the most interesting things about this futuristic tech is that it's really not new at all. It was adopted in the early twentieth century for flight simulations. Almost 100 years later, it's still seen as the newest thing because developers have begun to iterate on it more. "People overestimate the impact of tech in the short term," he said, "and underestimate its impact long term."

SOURCE: O'Donnell, R. (21 May 2019) "Extended reality promises a holistic training experience, experts say" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.hrdive.com/news/extended-reality-promises-a-holistic-training-experience-experts-say/554872/


Your bad work environment may be raising your healthcare costs

Is your company’s culture leading to raised healthcare costs? More and more research is documenting a relationship between stressful work environments and a range of chronic conditions. Continue reading to learn more.


If you want to reduce the cost of healthcare for your employees — while simultaneously improving care — you may need to take a serious look at your work environment. When reviewing areas that could help reduce costs, a much overlooked aspect is a stressful work environment.

While employers have done a lot to reduce the risk of potential injuries in the workplace, they have done far less to reduce stress, which could also be harmful.

Research finds a link between employee health and job performance. There also is a growing body of research documenting the relationship between a stressful work environment and a range of chronic conditions — including depression, hypertension and sleeping problems. But employers often struggle to connect the dots between these health concerns and supporting a healthy environment for employees.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to manage something that remains unmeasured. That’s why measuring outcomes beyond healthcare cost fluctuations, such as absence, periods of work disability and job performance, can help employers understand a broader range of outcomes important to the successful operation of their business.

When employers ask how they can affect the health of their employees, I ask what they know about the working conditions in their organization. Is there management trouble, high turnover, high illness-related absence or low job satisfaction? Some of this can be determined from employee satisfaction surveys, or analyses of sick leave data and work disability claims. Often, even more can be discovered by gathering employee feedback.

For example, listening to employees, equipping them with the knowledge to recognize safety issues and providing the tools or procedures to correct these issues, were key to improving workplace safety. A successful safety review can result in real change. Employees observe this change and a cycle is created where prevention becomes the focus because all are accountable and all have trust based on experience that their identification of potential or real safety issues will be dealt with effectively.

If employers are unaware of the factors in their own work environment that could be modified to lessen psychosocial stressors, a good place to start is by listening to employees. Many employers already conduct job satisfaction surveys or health risk appraisals that provide some information around work and health issues. These same tools could be used to identify and address psychosocial issues in the workplace.

Whatever the channel — a suggestion box, a designated HR representative, a focus group, a survey — it must provide employees with the opportunity to authentically and safely share their perspectives. And, finally, it must be demonstrably legitimate, resulting in employer actions that are clear and meaningful to all.

Typically employers use health and wellness programs in an attempt to remediate rather than prevent illness. Our interviews with medical directors of some of the leading U.S. corporations revealed a similar finding. Often, the medical director or chief health officer is charged with improving employee health, while the HR benefits manager is charged with reducing healthcare costs. Not surprisingly, these two goals can be at odds with each other. Imagine the company with a large percent of untreated depression.

So how can employers know what works or even what to try?

Evaluators often start their work by asking why particular activities, services or coverage types were chosen or implemented. This helps identify those areas more proximal to the employment setting (something about the job or in the work environment, for instance) and those areas more distal to the employment setting (such as medication formulary). To put a fine point on the problem, Pfeffer notes that “putting a nap pod into a workplace is not going to substitute for the fact that people aren’t getting enough sleep because they are working 24/7.”

Those looking to get started might begin by watching Working on Empty, an 11-minute documentary, which can provide solid direction for the type of information you’re seeking from your employees. Honor their voice and insight, and use it to implement real change. In doing so, you will build trust and a channel for contribution that improves outcomes for employees and employers.

SOURCE: Jinnett, K. (20 May 2019) "Your bad work environment may be raising your healthcare costs" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/workplace-stress-increasing-healthcare-costs


Taking the first steps to a long-term benefits strategy

Many companies are struggling in the search to find cost-effective, successful employee benefits strategies that HR professionals and finance professionals agree on. Read this blog post to learn more.


The quest for a cost-effective and successful employee benefits program can feel like a search for the Holy Grail. To most, it’s an elusive goal within the context of rising and unsustainable costs.

Unlike “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” in which a comedy of errors made for a hilarious movie, nonsensical benefits strategies can have serious consequences.

One major challenge is that many HR and finance professionals have conflicting objectives. HR’s mission is to design a program that is competitive in the marketplace for human capital needs while supporting the organization’s culture. Finance, on the other hand, is charged with managing to a budget by controlling expenses to mitigate year-over-year increases. The result, in spite of best intentions, leaves organizations unable to commit to a multi-year plan and opt in favor of living year-to-year.

So, how do you overcome this challenge?

Step 1Key HR and finance stakeholders need to align on goals and objectives. They also need to remain engaged in the process throughout the year (not just at renewal). Once you achieve alignment, these objectives should be memorialized into a benefits philosophy. Why? So the collective team has guiding principles for future decisions.

Step 2: Identify the cost drivers of the program. Many employers have little line of sight into how their plan is performing until it’s too late. Once you are staring down the barrel of a 25% increase, an organization may be forced to make swift changes to soften the blow to their bottom line rather than follow a strategic approach that comes with preparation. Unfortunately, this type of knee-jerk reaction only temporarily relieves the pressure and may create unintended consequences to the employee value proposition.

Step 3Understand where you were, where you are and where you want to be. After 25 years in the consulting industry, one thing I know for certain is there are only so many levers you can pull to rein in escalating benefit costs. Identify the levers and how far you want to pull them.

Step 4: Determine success metrics. I’ve seen many organizations implement new tactics, such as a health savings account. When I ask them if it was successful, they can’t answer because they didn’t set an internal bar for success. That barometer will help you gauge success and determine what changes need to be made to your approach to achieve your goal.

Step 5Commit the plan to writing and review it periodically. Just like your company’s overall business plan, you will need to make adjustments along the way as your business changes.

Regardless of strategy, I recommend employers take steps toward a self-funding benefits model. Historically, self-funding was for groups with 1,000 lives and above. But that’s no longer the case. Self-funding provides that all-important line of sight into cost drivers because of access to claims data. Having a deeper understanding of the “why” behind costs allows an organization to implement a data-driven approach to the overarching benefits strategy. Self-funding also provides more plan design flexibility and eliminates the internal costs that an insurance carrier builds into a plan for profit.

It’s more effective to create a benefits strategy that is sustainable over time, so when you inevitably endure a higher-than-normal renewal cycle, typically every three to five years, you are prepared to stay the course.

Consider timing. When you make changes to a benefit plan is just as important as what changes you make. Evaluate the timing of benefit changes, how they are implemented and how adjustments will impact your workforce now and in the future.

For example, if you plan to add new voluntary benefits, such as indemnity plans, it may make sense to run them “off cycle” from the core medical benefits open enrollment season. This gives employees more time to conduct research about the new product option and make an educated decision.

Strive for simplicity. I can’t stress this enough. The Affordable Care Act, an increase in voluntary benefit options, new funding models and benefit trends have created an enormous amount of noise in the insurance industry. Tune it out and simplify your process as much as you can. Your HR and Finance teams are overwhelmed and so are your employees. Instead of throwing new benefits at them each year, focus on educating them and making choices simple. In fact, any long-term benefits plan worth its weight always includes an education and communications component.

Benefit illiteracy is rampant, and confusion over options at open enrollment can have consequences for the employee throughout the plan year. If your employees choose their benefits online, spend the open enrollment meeting educating them on how to buy and consume insurance, rather than just what the benefit choices are for the plan year, or how to use the online enrollment tool. You should also communicate throughout the year, rather than just at open enrollment to support employees’ understanding of their benefits program.

Identify other areas where employees might struggle. One trend is to offer transparency tools to help them choose a doctor or specialist. But be aware that the sheer number of doctors in a given list can be overwhelming. Rather than offering employees a choice of 50 doctors, narrow it down to five providers with the best healthcare outcomes.

Making it simpler for employees to be better consumers of healthcare will help you cut costs and get on the right path to a long-term benefit strategy. Of course, you’ll have to check in each year and consider making small adjustments to the program, and data will help guide these changes. Adjustments should all be in service of a long-term plan. If you begin your long-term plan by asking the question, “Where were we, where are we now and where do we want to be in the future?” you’re halfway there. You may eventually find that your Holy Grail is within reach.

SOURCE: Bloom, A. (14 May 2019) "Taking the first steps to a long-term benefits strategy" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/taking-the-first-steps-to-a-long-term-benefits-strategy


Are you offering the right benefits? Look to benchmarking, surveys for answers

With unemployment at historic lows, benefits have become a big differentiator for employers. Continue reading this blog post for more on benchmarking your employee benefits plan.


With unemployment at a 50-year low, benefits have become a big differentiator for employers, which means they need to be competitive to attract and retain employees. What are competitive benefits? Ask 100 employers and you’ll get 100 answers.

It’s no longer affordable to offer Cadillac plans with low employee contributions. How do employers offer attractive yet affordable benefits that will draw potential employees in? They turn to benchmarking and employee surveys to build and validate benefit plans.

“High cost” has become so synonymous with “healthcare benefits” that it’s hard to separate one from the other. As benefits become more costly, they also become more complicated to manage. Add today’s shift to the need for competitive programs and the whole thing begins to look like a slog through quicksand.

Here’s the thing: The employer must strike a balance between what employees want and what they’ll use. That means zeroing in on what they find valuable. While it may be tempting to follow benefit trends by offering pet insurance or creating in-office perks like beer and pizza, research suggests that most employees value more traditional coverages and benefits. What gets them in the door — and keeps them engaged — is likely going to be paid leave, flexible/remote work options and professional development.

To determine what your employees want and what peer employers are offering in your industry, look to benchmarking and employee surveys as two of the sharpest arrows in your plan design quiver.

Benchmarking tells you what you’re competing against. While certain employee benefits are more popular in some industries than others, it’s vital to know who you’re competing against to attract and retain employees. For example, nonprofit organizations historically provide modest employee salaries but rich benefits. While that benefits model may work for most of your workforce, it’s important not to overlook other industry standards. A large nonprofit hiring employees for its IT department is not only competing against other nonprofits for talent, but they’re also competing against tech-industry talent, which may put more of a focus on salary and bonuses than rich benefits.

The best way to identify who you’re competing against and what types of benefits they’re offering is to undertake a benchmarking study. Benchmarking your benefits package can provide insight into what your competition offers across industries, regions and company size so you can ensure your plan design stands up against the competition. Benchmarking studies yield details like:

  • Medical plan type
  • Employee premium cost
  • Employee premium contribution
  • Medical copay
  • Prescription drug copay
  • Office visit copay
  • Emergency room copay
  • Voluntary benefits offerings
  • Salary ranges
  • Paid sick leave

Armed with that data, you can decide where you should aim your focus and whether you’re offering a competitive benefits package.

Surveys tell you what employees value. The best way to understand what your employees value is to ask them. Employee surveys can help you find out which benefits your employees love, which ones they don’t like and where you can make improvements.

When developing an employee benefits survey, pay close attention to how questions are written in order to elicit the best responses from employees. It might make sense to reach out to a survey organization to ensure it’s done right. Benefit brokers often have experience with surveys, too.

When the survey is complete, put together a communications plan so you can get the highest number of responses about what your employees love and what needs improvement. It’s a best practice to survey employees every plan year to stay on top of changes across the workforce. (Just not at open enrollment time).

It’s an inexpensive undertaking that could lead to serious cost savings from changes to the plan and increased employee retention. So basically, a survey is worth the time and effort.

Benchmarking and surveys are important components of a benefits strategy. They can put you on a more direct path to a plan design with options that are right for your culture and workforce.

SOURCE: Newman, H. (17 May 2019) "Are you offering the right benefits? Look to benchmarking, surveys for answers" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/hr-review-surveys-for-employee-benefits-trends


Changes are coming to paid leave. Here’s what employers should know

With multiple states and local governments enacting their own paid leave policies, employers are finding it difficult to navigate employee paid leave. Continue reading this blog post for what employers should know about the coming changes for paid leave.


A growing number of states and local governments are enacting their own paid leave policies. These new changes can be difficult for employers to navigate if they don’t understand the changes that are happening.

Adding to the confusion among employers, paid sick leave and paid family leave are often used interchangeably, when in fact there are some important distinctions. Paid sick leave is for a shorter time frame than paid family leave and allows eligible employees to care for their own or a family member’s health or preventative care. Paid family leave is more extensive and allows eligible employees to care for their own or a family member’s serious health condition, bond with a new child or to relieve family pressures when someone is called to military service.

The best-known type of employee leave is job-protected leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, where employees can request to take family medical leave for their own or a loved one’s illness, or for military caregiver leave. However, leave under FMLA is unpaid, and in most cases, employees may use available PTO or paid leave time in conjunction with family medical leave.

Rules vary by state, which makes it more difficult for multi-state employers to comply. The following is an overview of some new and changing state and local paid leave laws.

Paid sick leave

The states that currently have paid sick leave laws in place are Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. There are also numerous local and city laws coming into effect across the country.

In New Jersey, the Paid Sick Leave Act was enacted late last year. It applies to all New Jersey businesses regardless of size; however, public employees, per diem healthcare employees and construction workers employed pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement are exempt. As of February 26, New Jersey employees could begin using accrued leave time, and employees who started after the law was enacted are eligible to begin using accrued leave 120 days after their hire dates.

Michigan’s Paid Medical Leave Act requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide paid leave for personal or family needs as of March.

Under Vermont’s paid sick leave law, this January, the number of paid sick leave hours employees may accrue rose from 24 to 40 hours per year.

In San Antonio, a local paid sick leave ordinance passed last year, but it may not take effect this August. The ordinance mirrors one passed in Austin that has been derailed by legal challenges from the state. Employers in these cities should watch these, closely.

Paid family leave

The five states that currently have paid family leave policies are California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington and the District of Columbia.

New York, Washington and D.C. all have updates coming to their existing legislation, and Massachusetts will launch a new paid family program for employers in that state. In New York, the state’s paid family leave program went into effect in 2018 and included up to eight weeks of paid family leave for covered employees. This year, the paid leave time jumps to 10 weeks. Payroll deductions to fund the program also increased.

Washington’s paid family leave program will begin on January 1, 2020, but withholding for the program started on January 1 of this year. The program will include 12 weeks of paid family leave, 12 weeks of paid medical leave. If employees face multiple events in a year, they may be receive up to 16 weeks, and up to 18 weeks if they experience complications during pregnancy.

The paid family leave program in Massachusetts launches on January 1, 2021, with up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a family member or new child, 20 weeks of paid leave for personal medical issues and 26 weeks of leave for an emergency related to a family member’s military deployment. Payroll deductions for the program start on July 1.

The Paid Leave Act of Washington, D.C. will launch next year with eight weeks of parental leave to bond with a new child, six weeks of leave to care for an ill family member with a serious health condition and two weeks of medical leave to care for one’s own serious health condition. On July 1, the district will begin collecting taxes from employers, and paid leave benefits will be administered as of July 1, 2020.

Challenging times ahead

An employer must comply with all state and local sick and family leave laws, and ignorance of a law is not a defense. Employers must navigate different state guidelines and requirements for eligibility no matter how complex, including multi-state employers and companies with employees working remotely in different jurisdictions.

These state paid leave programs are funded by taxes, but employers must cover the costs of managing the work of employees who are out on leave. While generous paid leave policies can help employers attract talent, they simply don’t make sense for all companies. For example, it can be difficult for low-margin businesses to manage their workforces effectively when employees can take an extended paid leave.

Not only must employers ensure compliance with state and local rules, but they also must make sure that their sick time, family and parental leave policies are non-discriminatory and consistent with federal laws and regulations. That’s a lot to administer.

Employers should expect to see the changes in paid sick leave and family leave laws to continue. In the meantime, companies should make sure they have the people and internal processes in place right now to track these changes and ensure compliance across the board.

SOURCE: Starkman, J.; Johnson, D. (2 May 2019) "Changes are coming to paid leave. Here’s what employers should know" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/what-employers-need-to-know-about-changing-paid-leave-laws?brief=00000152-14a7-d1cc-a5fa-7cffccf00000


Is it Time for Unlimited Time off?

More and more employee benefits are being designed around employee health, wellness and happiness, but many of them are designed to keep employees at work. Continue reading this blog post from UBA to learn more.


While more and more perks — catered lunches, on-site gyms, immunizations programs — are about employee health, wellness, and happiness, they ultimately are also designed to keep workers at work. A recent article in Quartz at Work points out that more than anything, employees want more time off and out of the office. Unlimited time off, to be exact.

Once the perk of tech firms and startups, more companies are beginning to explore unlimited paid time off. And, though still rare at only one to two percent of companies, it’s a popular request in part because workforce demographics continue to shift. Nearly half of employees are Millennials, whose priorities are changing the benefits conversation. For this group, finding more balance and having more control of their time are key. In part, this may be because time off has fundamentally changed. Well and Good looks at the fact that, with near-constant connectedness, vacation days often still involve checking email and getting other notifications.

Add to that cultural and workplace expectations of accessibility and availability, and workers are at risk for burnout. One in four workers report feeling burned out all the time and almost half feel burned out sometimes. This burnout can cost employers in lost productivity, and employees in terms of health and happiness. Today, someone doesn’t need to psychically spend 90 hours a week at the office to be working 90 hours. With our always-on lives, restorative time off is rarer but still as important to prevent burnout.

That doesn’t mean every business is jumping on the unlimited time off bandwagon. Want other ideas? A writer for The Guardian suggests a middle ground, with more days off the longer an employee has worked at a company. And, while rollover sounds generous, it may make employees less likely to use it. Want to give it a try but concerned about misuse? Business Management Daily suggests it’s also more than reasonable to consider limits on unlimited and critical to set sound guidelines around pay as well as whether days off can be all in a row.

For many employees, unlimited time off offers the extra flexibility for life’s challenges and can aid satisfaction and retention. Before HR Departments worry the system will be abused, research shows that people take significantly less time off when it’s unlimited. In fact, what may be more impactful is a minimum number of days off may be required so as to ensure employees take advantage of a benefit meant to restore and replenish their energy, creativity, and engagement. To work, it needs to be modeled by managers and other higher-ups, as a CEO details in a Chicago Daily Herald article.

Read more:

The Benefit Workers Want Most is Less Work

Vacation Time and Being Off Work Are No Longer the Same, so Avoiding Burnout Is Trickier than Ever

What Could be Better than Unlimited Paid Vacation? Well, this …

Unlimited Vacation -- the One Benefit Workers Want More than Anything

Ask These Questions when Considering Unlimited PTO

SOURCE: Olson, B. (7 May 2019) "Is it Time for Unlimited Time off?" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from http://blog.ubabenefits.com/is-it-time-for-unlimited-time-off


4 benefits messages to send employees in May

With tax season over, and summer right around the corner, now is a great time to beef up communications about certain employee benefits. Read on for four benefits messages employers should send their employees this May.


With tax season behind us, summer right around the corner and the second half of the year coming up, now is a great time of year for employers to beef up communications about certain benefits.

That’s because there are a number of important messages that are specific to this time of year, including saving money for summer vacations and putting more money into a health savings account so employees can plan for healthcare expenses for the remainder of the year.

Here are four messages employers should share with their employers this month.

1. Think about putting more money in your HSA.

May is a great time for your employees to take stock of their healthcare costs from January to April, and plan ahead for the second half of the year. Here’s a breakdown you can send to help them save money and have more cash available through December to pay their bills.

  1. Add up this year’s out-of-pocket health care costs thus far.
  2. Make a new estimate of your upcoming expenses (padding that estimate for unexpected expenses that may pop up.).
  3. Add your estimated costs to what you’ve already spent.
  4. Compare that total with how much you’ll have in your HSA account at the end of the year as it is now.
  5. If there’s a gap, you can increase your contribution rate now to make up the difference.

2. Adjust your W-4s.

Tax season has passed, which means it’s an excellent time to…think a little more about taxes.

The tax law changes that went into effect at the start of 2018 might have made your employees’ existing W-4s less accurate. If they didn’t update their withholding amount last year, they might have been surprised by a smaller refund, a balance due, or even by a penalty owed — and chances are, they don’t feel too happy about it.

Let your employees know that they can prevent unexpected surprises like this next tax season with a visit to this IRS tax withholding calculator. There, they can estimate their 2019 taxes and get instructions on how to update their W-4 withholdings to try and avoid any surprises next year. If they can update their W-4 online, send them the link along with clear step-by-step instructions. And if they need to fill out a paper form, explain where to find it and how to submit it.

3. Revisit your budgeting tools.

Summer is almost here, and your employees are likely starting to think about hitting the beach, road-tripping across the country or eating their weight in ice cream. Since having fun costs money, May is a good time to serve up some ideas on how to squirrel away a little extra cash in the next few months.

Employers should share tips for saving money on benefits-related expenses, like encouraging high-deductible health plan employees to use sites like GoodRx.com for cheaper prescription costs, or visiting urgent care instead of the emergency room for non-life-threatening issues. Also, consider making employees aware of apps like Acorns, Robinhood, Stash, Digits and Tally, which round up credit or bank card expenses to the next dollar, and automatically deposit the extra money into different types of savings accounts.

4. Double-check out-of-network coverage.

While you’re on the subject of summer fun, remind your employees to take a quick peek at their health plan’s out-of-network care policies before they head out of town. If they need a doctor (or ice cream headache cure) while they’re away, they’ll know where to go, how to pay, and how to get reimbursed.

Employers should remind employees that their HSA funds never expire, and they’re theirs for life. So if they put in more than they need this year, it will be there for them next year.

SOURCE: Calvin, H. (1 May 2019) "4 benefits messages to send employees in May" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/4-benefits-messages-to-send-employees-in-may


What to consider before adding a genetic testing benefit

Did you know: Eighteen percent of employers provide health-related genetic testing benefits, according to new statistics from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). Read on for what employers should consider before adding a genetic testing benefit to their benefits package.


As employers look for new voluntary benefits to help attract and retain employees, a growing number are turning to direct-to-consumer genetic testing for all employees to their benefits plans. According to the latest statistics from the Society for Human Resource Management, 18% of employers provide a health-related genetic testing benefit, an increase of 6% over the previous year.

For the most part, it can be a smart move: Not only can the benefit differentiate one employer from others vying to hire from the same employee pool, genetic testing providers market the benefit as a way to potentially lower healthcare costs and increase employee wellness.

This type of testing can be valuable for employees at an increased risk for certain types of cancer, such as breast and ovarian cancer related to mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, those considering having a child who have risk factors for genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Tay Sachs disease, those who have a family history of conditions like high cholesterol, and those who take medications such as blood thinners and anti-depressants. There also are tests that look for genes associated with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and celiac disease.

But employers also have to realize that genetic testing for all employees, regardless of family history and risk factors, comes with potential downsides. In fact, some physicians believe that widespread genetic testing of this type may even present a risk of harm. There’s also the issue of regulation and oversight of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. The industry is not currently regulated, which, some researchers have found, can lead to inaccurate or varying results. One study found that when the same genetic variant was provided to nine different labs for analysis, the answers provided were different 22% of the time, highlighting the risk of false positive and false negative results.

So for employers who offer — or are considering adding — a genetic benefit, make sure to think about the potential outcomes that can occur by doing so.

The potential for lower costs as well as unnecessary healthcare spending

If an employee’s genetic test is positive for a mutation that’s associated with cancer or another disease, he or she may be more proactive about screening for the disease and may make lifestyle changes that may lower the risk of developing the disease. There are potential healthcare cost savings to early detection of some conditions. For example, by some estimates, the cost for treating early-stage breast cancer is more than 50% less than the cost to treat the same cancer at an advanced stage.

For employees who undergo testing related to how effective a blood thinner or antidepressant will be, there can be better health outcomes as well as cost savings. One study found that when physicians prescribed the blood thinner Warfarin based on pharmacogenomic testing, adverse events decreased by 27%. Avoiding adverse events and making sure employees are taking the medications that can most effectively treat their conditions can help keep them healthy, out of the hospital and productively on the job, all of which has a positive financial impact.

But when you’re screening people who don’t have risk factors or a family history of these conditions, a positive test result can lead to unnecessary testing and medical procedures, potential complications from those procedures and the costs associated with that testing and care.

Before and after testing, education

Employers who offer genetic testing without a physician referral need to take steps to ensure that employees understand the risks and benefits of these tests upfront and that they know what a genetic test can and cannot tell them about their health now and in the future. The first step is for any employer offering genetic testing to provide education for employees.

Many employees don’t realize that having a gene mutation that’s associated with a disease does not mean that he or she will ever develop that disease. The risk associated with most genetic variations is, in fact, relatively small. Because of that misunderstanding, employees may experience needless worry or, if the test is negative for mutations related to a disease, may forgo screenings like mammograms, colonoscopies and cholesterol tests that can help detect health problems earlier when they are often more treatable. In the case of genetic testing for mutations associated with cancer, employees may not be aware that most cancers are not caused by a mutation in the single gene that the test screens for.

For some of the conditions that genetic tests screen for, like Alzheimer’s disease, there are currently no treatments. This can again cause anxiety for employees and their families. Genetic tests also have implications that reach beyond the specific employee who is tested. A positive test can affect siblings and children as well, opening the question of whether the employee wants or feels compelled to share the results with other family members who may also be at risk.

Employers who offer employees genetic testing should ensure that all employees who choose to undergo testing are guided by experienced genetic counselors who can help them interpret and understand the results of their test and can connect them with other healthcare providers for additional testing or treatment as needed.

SOURCE: Varn, M. (3 May 2019) "What to consider before adding a genetic testing benefit" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/what-to-consider-before-adding-a-genetic-testing-benefit


Workplace Wellness Programs Barely Move The Needle, Study Finds

Workplace wellness programs do not cut costs for employers, reduce absenteeism or improve workers' health, according to a recent study from JAMA. Continue reading this blog post to learn about this recent study and workplace wellness programs.


Workplace wellness programs have become an $8 billion industry in the U.S. But a study published Tuesday in JAMA found they don’t cut costs for employers, reduce absenteeism or improve workers’ health.

Most large employers offer some type of wellness program — with growth fueled by incentives in the federal Affordable Care Act.

A host of studies over the years have provided conflicting results about how well they work, with some showing savings and health improvements while others say the efforts fall short.

Many studies, however, faced a number of limitations, such as failing to have a comparison group, or figuring out whether people who sign up for such wellness programs are somehow healthier or more motivated than those who do not.

Now researchers from the University of Chicago and Harvard may have overcome these obstacles with one of the first large-scale studies that is peer-reviewed and employs a more sophisticated trial design.

They randomly assigned 20 BJ’s Wholesale Club outlets to offer a wellness program to all employees, then compared results with 140 stores that did not.

The big-box retailer employed nearly 33,000 workers across all 160 clubs during the test.

After 18 months, it turned out that yes, workers participating in the wellness programs self-reported healthier behavior, such as exercising more or managing their weight better than those not enrolled.

But the efforts did not result in differences in health measures, such as improved blood sugar or glucose levels; how much employers spent on health care; or how often employees missed work, their job performance or how long they stuck around in their jobs.

“The optimistic interpretation is there is no way we can get improvements in health or more efficient spending if we don’t’ first have changes in health behavior,” said one study author, Katherine Baicker, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. (Dr. Zirui Song, an assistant professor of health policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School, was its co-author.)

“But if employers are offering these programs in hopes that health spending and absenteeism will go down, this study should give them pause,” Baicker said.

The study comes amid widespread interest in wellness programs.

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual survey of employers found that 53% of small firms and 82% of large firms offer a program in at least one of these areas: smoking cessation, weight management and behavioral or lifestyle change. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Some programs are simple, offering gift cards or other small incentives to fill out a health risk assessment, take a lunch-and-learn class or join a gym or walking group. Others are far more invasive, asking employees to report on a variety of health-related questions and roll up their sleeves for blood tests.

A few employers tie financial incentives to workers actually lowering risk factors, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol — or making concerted efforts to participate in programs that might help them do so over time.

The Affordable Care Act allowed employers to offer financial incentives worth up to 30% of the cost of health insurance, leading some employers to offer what could be hundreds or even thousands of dollars off workers’ deductibles or premiums to get them to participate. That led to court challenges about whether those programs are truly voluntary.

In the study reported in JAMA, the incentives were modest. Participants got small-dollar gift cards for taking wellness courses on topics such as nutrition, exercise, disease management and stress control. Total potential incentives averaged $250. About 35% of eligible employees at the 20 participating sites completed at least one module.

Results from those workers — including attendance and tenure data, their self-reported health assessment and results from lab blood tests — were specifically compared with similar reports from 20 primary comparison sites where workers were not offered the wellness gift cards and classes. Overall employment and health spending data from all worksites were included in the study.

Wellness program vendors said details matter when considering whether efforts will be successful.

Jim Pshock, founder and CEO of Bravo Wellness, said the incentives offered to BJ’s workers might not have been large enough to spur the kinds of big changes needed to affect health outcomes.

Amounts of “of less than $400 generally incentivize things people were going to do anyway. It’s simply too small to get them to do things they weren’t already excited about,” he said.

An accompanying editorial in JAMA noted that “traditional, broad-based programs like the one analyzed by Song and Baicker may lack the necessary intensity, duration, and focus on particular employee segments to generate significant effects over a short time horizon.”

In other words, don’t give up entirely on wellness efforts, but consider “more targeted approaches” that focus on specific workers with higher risks or on “health behaviors [that] may yield larger health and economic benefits,” the editorial suggested.

It could be, the study acknowledges, that 18 months isn’t enough time to track such savings. So, Baicker and Song also plan to publish three-year results once they are finalized.

Still, similar findings were recently reported in another randomized control trial conducted at the University of Illinois, where individuals were randomly selected to be offered wellness programs.

In one interesting point, that study found that wellness-program participants were likely already healthier and more motivated, “thus a primary benefit of these programs to employers may be their potential to attract and retain healthy workers with low medical spending.”

Everyone involved in studying or conducting wellness agrees on one thing: Changing behavior — and getting people motivated to participate at all — can be difficult.

Steven Aldana, CEO of WellSteps, a wellness program vendor, said that for the efforts to be successful they must cut across many areas, from the food served in company cafeterias to including spouses or significant others to help people quit smoking, eat better or exercise more.

“Behavior is more complicated than simply taking a few wellness modules,” said Aldana. “It’s a lifestyle matrix or pattern you have to adopt.”

SOURCE: Appleby, J. (16 April 2019) "Workplace Wellness Programs Barely Move The Needle, Study Finds" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://khn.org/news/workplace-wellness-programs-barely-move-the-needle-study-finds/


A better place to work: How well-being impacts the bottom line

One in 10 employers is skeptical about the value of well-being programs. Health challenges, near stagnant wages, financial stress and more can take a personal toll on your employees, causing their stress levels to rise.  Continue reading to learn more.


Logically, employees bring their “whole selves” to work. Unfortunately, health challenges, relatively stagnant wages, heightened financial pressures, always-on technology and contentious geo-political climates around the world all take a personal toll on employees in the form of rising stress.

Employers recognize that the health and well-being of their workers is vital to engagement, performance and productivity, yet one in ten are skeptical about the value of well-being programs. But by learning from peers’ experiences, employers can take steps to help employees improve their well-being through access to related programs and services. And that contributes strongly to the overall success of the organization.

Survey says

According to the 252 global employers polled in the Working Well: A Global Survey of Workforce Wellbeing Strategies, building a culture of well-being is a higher priority than ever. Fully 40 percent of organizations believe they’ve actually achieved it, up from 33 percent in our 2016 survey. Of those who have not, another 81 percent are making plans to get there.

Top priorities for wellness programs in North America were to reduce stress and boost physical activity. Stress is a bottom-line issue for employers: 96 percent identified employee stress as the biggest challenge to a productive workforce.

Closely related priorities were improving nutrition and work-life issues, addressing depression and anxiety, and getting better access to health care services. On the latter, discussion with many employers confirms this includes sufficient access to mental and behavioral health providers—directly related to the top challenge of stress and its more serious potential debilitative consequences that can include anxiety, depression, addiction and more.

Health

The most frequently offered employee health benefits which respondents also assessed as most effective included the following:

  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs): By far the most frequent program, offered by 86 percent of global employers and 96 percent of US respondents. About 7 in 10 of those who offer an EAP said it’s effective in achieving their objectives, although actual experience reveals a wish that many more employees would take full advantage of EAP services. Know your numbers assessments, including health screenings and health risk appraisals, rose in prevalence globally and were considered effective by 86 percent of respondents.
  • On-site care: While smaller numbers of employers offer on-site immunizations, delivery of medical care, or fitness centers, they were still rated at just over 80 percent effective – demonstrating that convenience and access can remove barriers and enhance results.
  • Flexible working policies: These rose in prevalence over our last survey, consistent with other research demonstrating that multiple generations prize work flexibility to enable balance and help manage life’s stressors.
  • Wearables: Sensors and trackers also rose in prevalence. Globally, two-thirds of respondents credited them with effectiveness in monitoring and perhaps motivating healthy activities.

The survey also found health literacy is required to engage and drive behavioral change, and employers need targeted solutions to build it.

Finances

Validated by other research, a majority of employees live paycheck to paycheck today. Of US respondents, 87 percent reported financial distress among employees (the global average was 83 percent). Employers cited negative bottom-line results from financial stress, such as lower morale and engagement, delayed retirement and lower productivity, among other detrimental impacts. Other studies show financially stressed employees spend three hours or more each week distracted by it.

In prior years, this survey showed a top focus on saving for retirement; now, non-retirement-related objectives are rapidly catching up as priorities. It’s hard to focus on retirement when current needs are pressing. As a result, well over 7 in 10 employers also seek ways to ensure adequate insurance protection, help in saving for other future needs, better handling day-to-day expenses, reducing debt, and having emergency savings.

ROI vs. VOI

Just under half of respondents have specific, measurable goals or targets and outcomes for their well-being programs overall. But measurement is tricky, and 45 percent of respondents noted a lack of resources to support measurement as the top barrier to metrics. Nevertheless, only 8 percent perceived “no measurable return.”

Of those measuring the health care cost impact, 54 percent reported their programs were reducing trend by 2 to 5 percentage points per year. Financial well-being ratings were more challenging, with only 4 percent globally saying they have objective data to demonstrate their financial well-being program effectiveness.

Concurrently, many placed their bets on technology tools to inform program design and outreach: 84 percent rated predictive analytics as effective in helping to support well-being, even if just over a quarter offer it today—another half plan to do so in the next 2 to 3 years.

A value-of-investment priority emerges from the data. Employers intuitively pursue programs that build goodwill by providing helpful resources. The top four objectives globally focused on engagement and morale, performance and productivity, attraction and retention, and overall, enhancing the total rewards offering while managing spend. While reducing health care costs was the top objective for the US, it was fifth globally. Other objectives linked the organization’s image or brand and values and mission—if the company has a message to external customers, it needs to “walk the talk” internally with employees.

Holistic strategy

Compared to prior surveys, employers continue to explore new ways to support well-being, in response to employee and business needs. The historically stronger emphasis on health-related well-being continues, but financial well-being efforts are on the rise. For the US/Canada, the recent fast-rising program elements have been spiritual well-being (67 percent), retirement financial security and preparedness (57 percent), social connectedness (57 percent), and financial literacy/skills (63 percent).

In total, survey responses suggest employers understand that these well-being issues are interconnected and cannot be effectively addressed in isolation without a more holistic strategy and delivery solutions.

That’s where value of investment comes in, acknowledging that enhancing physical and emotional, financial, social, and other aspects of employee well-being can help make the organization a better place to work.

SOURCE: Hunt, R. (11 April 2019) "A better place to work: How well-being impacts the bottom line" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitspro.com/2019/04/11/a-better-place-to-work-how-well-being-impacts-the-bottom-line/