22 HR and Benefit Lessons We Learned in 2022

by | Dec 16, 2022 | Business, Employee Benefits

What’s in store for 2023? The best way to answer that question might be to look back. 

With 2022 just about in the rearview mirror, it’s a perfect time to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned over the course of the last year — our third dominated by the ebbs and flows of the pandemic, mixed up with continued staffing challenges and fresh worry about an unpredictable economy.

That may be setting 2023 up to be another year of uncertainty, but there are countless lessons that have emerged this year that businesses can count on.

Employee populations, for example, will continue to demand benefits that serve a diverse community of workers. (Any organizations that think DEI efforts are just a fad are sorely mistaken.) From financial wellness to robust healthcare offerings, workers want holistic support — and they’re still not afraid to leave your organization to find it.

Across the benefits and HR spaces, industry regulations and shifting norms will continue to keep leaders and advisers on their toes. Retirement enrollment may get a boost if the SECURE Act 2.0 passes through congress, but the healthcare industry may take on extra weight if and when COVID is no longer considered a public health emergency, stripping the industry of certain flexibilities that helped battle the pandemic.

We rounded up EBN’s top stories of 2022, outlining the biggest lessons learned — and what should be top of mind as we head into a new year.


1. The ROI on DEI is tangible.

Diversity in the workplace — or the lack thereof — has been a hot button issue for decades. But in recent years, the call for companies to take action and create equity in professional settings has reached a fever pitch. As employers continue to battle a challenging talent market, it’s clear they must make changes to build productive workforces and sustainable success.

But progress, of course, takes commitment and time — and the road to full equity and inclusion is a long one. Consider this: Despite an increased (and much lauded) focus on DEI efforts, according to new research from EBN’s parent company, Arizent, most non-white employees are less likely than their white counterparts to report feeling valued and that they belong at their organization. Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) report that their professional input is requested significantly less than their white colleagues.

For companies that have made active commitments to and investments in DEI — whether by implementing ERGs or using equitable hiring practices — the positive results are practically immediate. For example, 29% of companies report having diversity targets for hiring. Among those, race, ethnicity and gender targets are most common. When asked how successful their company had been at achieving its diversity target goals over the year, 93% reported that they’d been moderately to extremely successful.


2. Helping employees save for retirement might actually get easier.

SECURE Act 2.0 is currently awaiting a final vote in Congress — the pending legislation is anticipated to be a package of several retirement-related bills, expanding on provisions laid out in the original SECURE Act, which passed in 2019.

SECURE Act 2.0 includes a variety of provisions plan sponsors and employers will need to keep in mind if and when the bill is passed — one such element is to require that all new employees be automatically enrolled in a 401(k) or 403(b) plan when starting with a company. Employees would automatically have 3% of their pay invested into a plan, with a 1% increase every year, until they reach a 10% contribution rate.

The automatic nature of retirement savings is hugely beneficial to savers: research from Vanguard found that 92% of employees continued to save in their 401(k) plan three years after being enrolled — that number drops to just 29% when employees voluntarily participated in a workplace retirement plan.

“[Policy makers] are really incorporating auto best practices that many of us in the retirement industry have long understood to drive the best results,” says Dave Stinnett, head of strategic retirement consulting at Vanguard. “These are features that they’re trying to incorporate to make it as easy as possible for people to participate in plans and start saving early.”


3. Retirement is about more than just a dollar amount.

A survey by Transamerica found that 97% of retirees with a sense of purpose considered themselves happy in retirement, compared to 79% who said they were not fulfilled. For some, a lack of vision drives them back to work. Of those who decided to return to work after retiring, money was a factor, yet fighting boredom and keeping their minds sharp were also high on the list, a study from Home Instead found.

In order to find that purpose and design a fulfilling life, Casey walks his clients through a three-phase process. The first is to figure out your priorities — Casey encourages his clients to take stock of where they are now: How satisfied are you in your work? What areas of your life should you improve, be it relationships or even your health? Then clients think about the different opportunities they can create to enhance their lives, which can lead to both professional and personal change.

“I had a client who was a doctor and had a personal health crisis and had to change his lifestyle. Through that process, he decided to retire early and become a wellness coach,” says Joe Casey, an executive coach and former SVP at Merrill Lynch. “He wanted to have a broader impact than he could have had with his patients, and this was a breaththrough for him.”


4. Employees want to know what their 401(k) is supporting.

Only 37% of 401(k) and 403(b) plan participants said they were offered ESG-related investment options — which prioritize environmental, social and governance goals — by their employer, according to the Schroders 2021 U.S. Retirement Survey. Of the employees for whom ESG-focused options were available, nine out of 10 chose to invest in them, the survey found, and 69% said they would or might increase their overall contribution rate if ESG options were offered.

“We’re seeing a whole shift in power,” says Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow, a California-based non-profit that advocates for more transparency and sustainability in retirement investments. “And it’s going to shift the entire nature of capitalism and allow an economy based on justice and sustainability to emerge, because that’s what people want.”


 5. Gen Z will demand more from their workplace.

Since March 2020, workers under 25 have experienced furlough rates 73% higher than those aged 25 and older, and were terminated at rates 79% higher, according to data by resource management company Gusto. As those workers consider future opportunities, it’d be easy to expect them to prioritize a steady paycheck above all else, but in fact, 63% said that an employer having a stance on political issues and a broad social purpose is most important to them, a survey conducted by business analytics company Alight Solutions found.

“There’s this misconception out there that to attract younger talent you need to have it all be about the fun and the perks,” says Laine Thomas Conway, VP of communication strategy and total rewards product manager at Alight. “What the data really shows is that this generation is about what you stand for, who you are and how consistent you are as an employer.”


 6. Technology can help drive DEI efforts.

Campus Pride, a nonprofit dedicated to making college and university campuses safer and more welcoming for LGBTQ people, recently announced the launch of Campus Pride Career Connect — a career portal to help young queer adults create professional connections with LGBTQ-friendly companies.

“While more companies have made great strides in LGBTQ-inclusive policies and practices, there still remains systemic cultural disparities and bias for LGBTQ people on the job and in recruitment, hiring and the search process,” Shane Windmeyer, Campus Pride executive director said in a press release. “The idea came from several conversations with LGBTQ students, specifically our trans, nonbinary and queer youth of color, who shared trepidation about applying for certain jobs and the hiring processes.”


7. To win talent, HR and IT will need to strengthen their relationship.

Whether it’s incorporating more AI to streamline systems or revamping their cybersecurity to protect personal devices, the IT sector has seen some of the most growth and investment in the wake of the pandemic, according to the Computing Technology Industry Association, a technology insights nonprofit. That will continue to trend up as HR departments become more reliant on technology.

“The partnership between IT and HR is essential when it comes to improving an organization’s culture, productivity and overall collaboration,” says Julie Simmons, chief information officer at Coca-Cola bottler and distributor, Swire Coca-Cola. “Data helps business leaders be more predictive and improve the health of the employee life cycle by getting ahead of problems we’ve historically chased behind. Organizations need both parts of the equation to understand that employee experience.”


8. Pay transparency is an uphill battle — but it’s good for both workers and businesses.

Seventeen states, including New York and California have passed legislation requiring some level of pay transparency, according to a recent study conducted by employee analytics company Perceptyx. However, some of those regulations only go as far as allowing employees to freely discuss pay with colleagues without risking their jobs. Of the companies surveyed by Perceptyx, seven of 10 make salary ranges known to employees, but nine out of 10 acknowledged that those ranges are published only when required by law.

That’s limiting career growth across populations, and creating retention issues for organizations, too: Perceptyx’s research found that 40% of employees who have taken a new job in the last six months are earning the same or less than in their prior role.


9. Yes, it’s possible to put an end to the gender pay gap.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, women lose $417,000 worth of wages over a 40-year-long career. This disparity only widens for women of color, with Black women losing nearly $1 million in the same period. However, alongside in-depth compensation data and company-wide self-reflection, employers have the power to eliminate these gaps for their workers, says Sara Axelbaum, global head of inclusion and diversity at marketing intelligence company MiQ.

“In just one single year, we were able to eliminate the discrepancy in our salary bands,” says Axelbaum. “It came down to a philosophical realignment for a lot of our leadership to say that it was important to them to be transparent and accountable with our people.”

After using the data to pinpoint the disparities in their workforce, Axelbaum pushed the company to examine what people should be paid based on market research, setting up salary bands, or pay ranges, for each job level within MiQ. If an employee’s pay fell below their band, MiQ adjusted it, explains Axelbaum. The next step was to closely examine why employees are making a certain amount within their bands.

“Were these decisions made based on equity, or was it based on the philosophy of getting people as cheaply as possible?” says Axelbaum. “Because that philosophy is what got us into this hole in the first place.”


 10. The pandemic will still be a workplace issue in 2023…

Two new omicron subvariants are becoming dominant in the U.S. just in time for the holidays — and they are seven times more immune-evasive than their predecessor, BA.5. Additionally, healthcare providers are seeing record rates of flu and RSV, with children especially at risk for hospitalization. As of November, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 76% of pediatric hospital beds were occupied.

As this winter “tridemic” goes on, employers may see more employees call in sick to care for themselves and loved ones. However, routine COVID testing still remains a vital way to limit the number of cases that hit workforces, says Doug Field, chief revenue officer at Phase Scientific Americas, a firm that provides diagnostic and data tools for healthcare providers.

While precautions like vaccinations and masking do lower the risk of catching COVID, it’s important to note that as the virus evolves, the more likely it is to outpace the protections offered by vaccines that are currently available. Vaccines can also decrease the severity of COVID symptoms experienced in the initial weeks of testing positive, but they do not effectively stop long COVID and the healthcare costs and absences that come with it. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine found that vaccines only reduced the risk of getting long COVID by 15%.

“I hear people say that they are not testing because a [majority] of their employee population is vaccinated,” says Field. “But the fact of reality is that you can still get COVID if you’re vaccinated, and you can still give COVID to others. So unless you test, you don’t know.”


11. And… employees suffering from long COVID will need additional support and accommodations.

The CDC estimates that 19% of Americans have symptoms of long COVID, while research group the Brookings Institution found that long COVID may be keeping four million Americans out of work.

Nomi Health, a healthcare services provider based in Utah, found that employer spend on long COVID was over $2,500 per employee, which is 26% higher than what employers spend on diabetes. Alongside healthcare costs comes a loss of productivity and talent.

Janet Young, lead clinical scientist at health data analytics company Springbuk, predicts tracking long COVID will not get easier in the near future and advises employers to prioritize prevention, whether that means encouraging vaccinations, masking, testing or all of the above, especially when the employer’s community experiences the next wave of cases. Employers can also prepare to incur costs associated with long COVID symptoms and put the necessary benefits in place, like expanded sick leave and telehealth visits.


12. For the healthcare industry, there’s little relief in sight.

On January 27, 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared COVID-19 a public health emergency (PHE), which created certain flexibilities within the healthcare industry to help the nation address the impact of the virus. That has included simplifying access to vaccines, creating HIPAA allowances to more broadly enable the use of telehealth throughout the pandemic, and most notably, requiring Medicaid programs to keep people continuously enrolled through the end of the PHE to avoid lapses in coverage.

For nearly three years, the PHE has been repeatedly extended, though it’s expected to finally expire in early 2023. Despite regulatory challenges created by the impending end of the PHE, it’s impossible to ignore the cultural shifts COVID created — and the fact that for many consumers, their relationship to healthcare has forever changed. As we move into 2023, a new sort of “new normal” will likely emerge, but it will take significant effort and communication between healthcare providers, systems, insurance carriers, employers and employees.

“We went into this pandemic with this PHE and with lockdowns, not trying to eradicate COVID but to minimize hospitalizations and deaths — and while it didn’t happen overnight, it did happen,” says Michael Strazzella, head of federal government relations at law firm Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney. “Trying to maintain that level in kind of an open, non-PHE, non-lockdown world, becomes challenging.”


 13. Virtual healthcare works.

In early 2020, just 7% of people in the U.S. had met with a healthcare provider virtually; by mid-2021, that number had jumped to 32%, according to a survey by Accenture. A quarter of respondents said their access to healthcare had improved since the onset of the pandemic, and more than 20% expressed interest in digital services.

“Through the past two years, people really got accustomed to remote services, really because they had to,” says Ellen Kelsay, CEO of Business Group on Health, a nonprofit that works with large employers to advocate for better solutions and innovation in healthcare. “But now we have to look at these solutions long-term, and make sure they are actually improving outcomes and reducing costs.”


14. Abortion care is a vital part of healthcare for women and families.

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has left 40 million Americans without safe access to reproductive healthcare — but employers are not without power.

Given the proper considerations and benefits, companies can ensure their workers have access to care and privacy, says Mandy Price, co-founder and CEO of Kanarys, a technology platform that helps organizations prioritize DEI efforts.

“We immediately started to help our organizations contemplate what they needed to do in order to support their employees,” says Price. “We have to take steps to ensure that no matter what our view on Roe v. Wade is, we take into account any growing impact on gender or socioeconomic inequities.”


 15. Doulas as a benefit will trend in 2023, as maternal health gets a spotlight.

Insurance provider Elevance Health examined the use and outcomes from doula services in affiliated Medicaid plans across California, Florida and New York. The findings revealed those with doulas had fewer in-patient admissions to the hospital, less likelihood of preterm births and lower odds of postpartum depression and anxiety.

This data further confirms that doulas are vital to a functioning U.S. healthcare system, says Jennifer Kowalski, vice president of the policy institute at Elevance Health.

“Doulas are trained to provide ongoing education and physical and emotional support to women before, during and after childbirth so the moms can achieve the best outcomes,” says Kowalski. “We wanted to learn and understand to what extent providing doula services in Medicaid would help address the maternal health disparities we see across the country.”


16. For women and workers of color, sponsorship and upskilling are more valuable then mentorship alone.

Less than 11% of senior executives are women among the world’s largest Fortune 500 companies, according to data from marketing communications firm Weber Schandwick — and that trend isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Fewer women held senior and even junior level positions in 2021 than they did in 2019, according to a study by IBM. To make matters worse, IBM also found that only 30% of junior women managers reported having sponsors or mentors, which can prove essential to career advancement.

Yet mentorship alone won’t make a big enough difference, says Solange Charas, founder and CEO of human capital analytics company HCMoneyball and adjunct professor at Columbia University. Instead, women need to seek out sponsorship, where the sponsor takes responsibility for helping their sponsee get promoted to higher-level positions.

“A mentor focuses on your personal and professional development, but a sponsor focuses on your career advancement,” says Charas. “Things have to happen in organizations so that women get sponsorships rather than mentorships.”


17. Continuing education and career development feed employee loyalty.

When Polyanna Unruh first joined Bank of America in 2019 as a relationship banker at a Nevada branch, one of the first things she did was get acquainted with the organization’s benefits and employee resources. And she liked what she found.

Bank of America offers $7,500 worth of tuition assistance per employee per year, which can be used towards professional certifications or degrees. For Unruh, who had moved to the U.S. from Brazil in 2017 with nothing more than a high school diploma on her educational resume, these benefits offered a roadmap to more than a job in finance, but a long-term career.

Starting her studies in May 2020, Unruh completed an online Bachelor’s degree in business management and administration in October 2021, followed immediately by an online MBA program, from which she graduated in July of 2022. She earned both degrees from Western Governors University, one of Bank of America’s partner schools, all while  maintaining a full-time schedule with her employer.

“I wouldn’t have pursued either degree without the assistance from the bank, and I don’t just mean financial assistance,” says Unruh. “There’s an academic support program that provides employees with very accessible academic coaches, and I also had very supportive managers who were essential to my success. They were always asking if I needed support, always making themselves available.”


18. Flexible work has no boundaries — but it does have rules and regulations.

According to MBO Partners, an independent workforce management platform, 16.9 million American workers describe themselves as “digital nomads” — employees who regularly move from place to place while continuing to work remotely. That’s a 131% increase from 2019, their research found.

While aspirational, working remotely while traveling abroad is not as simple as packing up a laptop and heading to a Parisian cafe. To support this lifestyle, employers and employees  should understand the logistical and legal hurdles that may come into play.

“The pandemic and the flip to remote work showed the world that yeah, you can be wherever you want to be, as long as you have a computer,” says Bjorn Reynolds, CEO of Safeguard Global, a global workforce management company. “But each country still has its own employment laws. Each country still has its own cultural habits. The key for the employer is to really make sure that they’re compliant.”


19. Lead by example to encourage employees to prioritize their mental health.

Almost all HR professionals are burned out: research from workplace communication app Workvivo found that 98% of HR professionals have experienced feelings of burnout, and 79% are considering leaving their jobs.

Addressing these issues means that HR leaders need to “put our oxygen masks on first,” says Julia Anas, chief people officer at Qualtrics, an employee experience platform. Over the last several years, Anas has seen the impact HR leaders have had on employee well-being, but they should be able to reap the benefits of that support, too.

“HR professionals are no different than other employees,” Anas says. “There’s an opportunity to listen and learn about ourselves in this process.”


20. Caregivers are still desperate for more support.

Of the nearly 53 million caregivers in the U.S., 28% are sandwich caregivers — those caring for two generations of loved ones, often elderly relatives and children — according to a report by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving.

Eighty percent of caregivers say their responsibilities hinder their productivity at work, and caregiving platform Cariloop estimates that its coaching and support programs has saved employees 200,000 hours of productive time that would have otherwise been spent on caregiving tasks.

“The care coach is really dealing with all of the red tape and all of the return phone calls, so that the loved one does not have to worry about dealing with any of that,” says Gayle Messmann, chief service officer at Cariloop. “Caregiving ebbs and flows. It might be a month down the road. It might be three months down the road. But they’re always going to have that same dedicated care coach to reach out to. That person knows your story.”


21. Savvy employers are recruiting from overlooked talent pools.

Between 70-100 million Americans have some type of criminal record, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization. Once they leave the justice system, the unemployment rate for those with a criminal background is 27%, according to analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, compared to the national unemployment rate of just 3.5%.

The inability to find a job — and keep it — not only puts their own future at risk, but that of their families, their communities and even the economy as a whole, says Tony Lowden, vice president of reintegration and community engagement at ViaPath Technologies, a technology platform that provides upskilling for incarcerated individuals.

“We have millions of Americans who have felony records, and a lot of them have been on the sidelines, trying to get jobs at livable wages, but aren’t able to compete,” Lowden says. “Now, because of the Great Resignation and because of the pandemic, these folks are dying to get into the workplace. The retention is unbelievable because they are loyal and they are grateful and they want to be able to support their families. We have jobs that need to be filled.”


22. Student loan forgiveness won’t quell the need for employer-provided repayment support.

The Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness plan has been shut down, leaving the 26 million borrowers who have already applied for debt relief in financial limbo. However, the story doesn’t end there, and employers and employees alike need to be prepared for what might come next.

Meagan McGuire, a senior student loan adviser at consulting company Student Loan Planning, hopes that even if the Biden administration fails to enact relief, they can still put their new income-driven repayment plan into effect. Currently, IDR plans allow the borrowers to make monthly payments based on their discretionary income, or the amount of Adjusted Gross Income that exceeds 100% or 150% of the federal poverty line. After 20 or 25 years of payments, balances are forgiven. Biden’s IDR plans will be based on 225% of the poverty line, be forgiven after 10 years of payments for original loan balances of $12,000, and cover all interest accrual. This means borrowers’ balances will not grow based on interest as they meet their monthly contributions.

“People with loan balances greater than their income usually have to resort to income-driven plans just to make the payment affordable,” says McGuire. “But even as they’re making payments, their balance is growing. This new plan would be more generous and make forgiveness more attainable.”

Regardless of whether Biden’s one-time forgiveness plan prevails in court, McGuire expects to see more changes to the student loan landscape. In the meantime, she advises employers to have the resources to help employees tackle payments once they restart again.

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