Making Benefits More Accessible–and Meaningful

BY Mary Pieper | April 23, 2024

Nicole Cody became the vice president of total rewards at International Paper in 2020, right in the middle of the first year of Covid. “That was an interesting time to come into this space,” she said during a panel discussion at From Day One’s April virtual conference.

Cody told moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company that the biggest spike in demand she has seen “is perhaps, not surprisingly, access to mental health providers and mental health care.”

A majority of Americans say money problems negatively impact their mental health, says Will Peng, CEO and co-founder of Northstar, a comprehensive financial wellness benefit. “Financial stressors are very closely related to other pillars of well-being,” he said.

Today’s workers want lifestyle spending accounts, which allow them to allocate benefit funds from their employers for wellness programs they need the most, says Megan Burns, benefits strategy and solutions lead for Forma, an employee benefits platform.

Those programs can include physical wellness, social-emotional health, financial counseling, and whatever else the company deems eligible. She noted some studies indicate that by 2025, about 40% of employers will have some sort of lifestyle spending or customizable spending account in place. “It’s definitely become a really trendy benefit.”

Stress Management and Mental Health

Stress management has become a much-desired employee benefit in recent years, says Alecia Williams-Pierre, VP of total rewards at Atrium Hospitality.

“We have been looking at implementing different webinars or meditations just as part of our culture to help associates be able to manage stress overall,” she said.

Having access to mental health care providers is an enormous challenge, especially in rural locations, according to Cody.

“So, when we were looking at how we could beef up our offerings, we looked at a provider network that doesn’t go through insurance,” she said. “They’re not part of a carrier’s provider network. They’re just mental health providers that get direct payments. And we found a way to process the claims through our insurance plan on the back end.”

This arrangement allowed International Paper to get its employees access to care within days as opposed to weeks, says Cody.

Helping Employees Manage Financial Stress

Peng says financial wellness is at the top of everyone’s mind right now because of inflation. “Everything seems to be really expensive now. It’s hard to walk out the door without spending more money than we hoped.”

Northstar has a platform to help people manage their finances and provides one-on-one counseling, says Peng. He says creating a personalized plan for each individual life stage is the best form of support. For example, if an employee is starting a family, they must change their budget and decide on their benefits.

The benefits and total rewards leaders spoke at From Day One's April virtual conference about "Benefits That Fit Individual Needs Without Busting the Budget" (photo by From Day One)

“For what should be an exciting life event, oftentimes, we’re overwhelmed with a ton of logistical and financial decisions that we have to make,” he said. “So, it’s about creating those systems and guidance to help our people feel supported.”

Lifestyle Spending Accounts

During the pandemic, employees became more aware of the need to balance work and life, says Sarah Schutzburger, benefits and wellness manager for Samsung Semiconductor.

“Employees would come to us saying, ‘What about this vendor? What about this support program? What about this resource?’” she said.

As a result, Samsung Semiconductor recently implemented a lifestyle spending account so workers “can customize what’s valuable to them, and be reimbursed for those types of benefits,” Schutzburger said.

Employees value lifestyle spending accounts because “they love choice and they love flexibility,” Burns said. Managing multiple benefits vendors can be costly and time-consuming for employers. However, lifestyle savings accounts are “sort of the easy button,” said Burns.

More than 75% of the employers who partner with Forma repurpose existing budget dollars for lifetime savings accounts. “I would say the value is both from an employee’s appreciation of the benefit, administrative time, and direct financial ROI,” she said.

Communicating With Employees About Benefits

Benefits only work if employees know and understand them, says Schutzberger. That’s why it’s critical for organizations to have “clear and concise messaging, using simple language to explain the benefits and their importance and avoiding jargon.”

Companies should also “tell a story about the benefits,” Schutzberger said. Whether they are new parents or nearing retirement, “they want to know how they apply to them.”

Williams-Pierre recommends organizations talk to their employees about benefits all year round using multiple channels such as email, webinars, and mailers.

At Atrium Hospitality, communicating these options can be tricky, because benefits need to be discussed in various languages. “We have to have Spanish, we have to have French, we have to have Tagalog. And as our population grows and changes, we have to be more creative and be ready to meet the need.”

Mary Pieper is a freelance writer based in Mason City, Iowa. 


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