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Expanding and Evolving the Role of HR and Benefits

Everything was supposed to be back to normal by now. Instead, HR and benefits leaders face a workplace that’s substantially changed. The fallout from the pandemic is a mix of cost uncertainty, employee wellbeing crisis and one seismic shift in the labor market.

Yet, businesses still need to keep running. And – you guessed it – they’re looking at HR and benefits leaders to accommodate those changes and help keep the lights on. Easier said than done, right?

So, as we move into another year where challenges abound, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the immediate past. It’s also an especially important time to examine exactly how HR and benefits leaders can meet all those needs for the future.

The Costs of COVID

With so much unpredictability, the pandemic threw how we anticipated health care costs into a tailspin.

Deferred care is a hot topic because of this. In fact, 15 percent of employees said they deferred some care between March and September 2020. And while some of that care will rebound, some of it will likely increase health care spending. The reality is that delayed care can result in advanced illness. Only time will tell the financial impact as employers start to unpack their health care claims.

There’s also the simple fact that the costs core to COVID are steep. Kaiser reports that the average hospitalization cost of COVID is around $20,000, noting that those requiring a ventilator are much higher.1 Additionally, the median cost of testing is $148. With federal requirements around vaccination and regular testing, the costs could exponentially rise for those companies covering the expense.2

The Toll on Total Wellbeing

The pandemic took a toll on all aspects of total wellbeing.

Demand for mental health services drastically increased. Nearly two-thirds of consumers told HRI said they had experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression because of the pandemic.3 The effects of this will likely be felt far into the future. And while employers are racing to put new programs in place to support, there are cost implications. An analysis from McKinsey finds that people with behavioral health diagnoses have around four times the average health care spend of those without.4

Population health also worsened over the course of the pandemic. Lack of exercise, poor nutrition and increase use of substance abuse and smoking are all factors contributing to that. Many also found their financial wellness tested, in some cases resulting in stress-induced health issues.

The Great Resignation

One pandemic outcome impacting workplaces everywhere is the increasingly burned-out and restless workforce. The result is the Great Resignation and a tighter labor market than ever before.

As the crisis wore on, employees began to reevaluate how they were spending their time, the professional environment they were in, and whether they wanted to continue that path in the future. As we know, the result has led many to explore and redefine themselves professionally. Nearly half of employees have thought about changing their careers. Moreover, 53 percent are willing to retrain in a completely different field or industry.5

Something has to give.

HR and benefits leaders were already under enough pressure before. Now, they’re being pushed to the limit, compelled to take on new and ever-expanding roles.

Here’s what that looks like. They’re asked to stay on top of pandemic-related mandates, determine return-to-work strategies, rein in health care costs while mitigating unpredictable COVID-19 costs and figure out how best to support employee wellbeing.

If you’re one of those leaders yourself, you feel this. To make a difference and really address these issues, HR and benefits leaders can’t operate in the same way. They need:

The burden on their time and resources removed. Benefits are notoriously complex, and the traditional systems HR and benefits leaders have in place don’t allow for flexibility. It’s so taxing on their time and resources to the point that staying stagnant is easier than making changes. They’re asked to be more vigilant with optimizing their health plan, but they need infrastructure to support it.

A way to drive and measure engagement. Every HR and benefits leader strives to keep their employees engaged. One key to that is understanding the value of their company-sponsored benefits. Yet, they often aren’t equipped with the tools needed to make communication easy or measure employee engagement.

Help from a broader team. It’s not uncommon for HR and benefits teams to be made up of a few employees. At the same time, they’re asked to do so much while required to take on expanded roles. Without support from an external partner supporting areas like compliance, billing, and employee support, it’s impossible to accomplish it all.    

Insight into plan performance. Balancing costs with employee needs and expectations is an incredibly difficult job. Yet, HR and benefits leaders often aren’t empowered to know the impact of their plan design on costs and health outcomes.

The Next Step for HR and Benefit Leaders

Right now, businesses are at a crossroads. They want to accomplish their objectives and retain the best and brightest. They want to drive programs that lead to better health outcomes and substantial savings for everyone. Here’s the “but.” It can only happen with an investment in HR and benefits, taking an innovative, comprehensive approach to their benefits program.

It’s not impossible. In fact, it’s a matter of taking the first step towards defining where you are now and where you want to be. We’ve made that easier with the Benefits Innovation Scale. And once you determine where you land, you can read on for a deeper dive into the fundamental areas to focus on to get to that innovative status. Download the ebook now to begin your assessment.





1. Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, December 2021

2. Peterson-KFF Health System Track, April 2021

3. PwC Health Research Institute

4. McKinsey

5. Prudential