Benefit Professionals: How Will You Reskill for the Post-COVID World?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has provided benefit professionals with first-hand experience of the “race to reskill.”Less than a year ago, many were working nights and weekends to fill serious gaps in benefits for essential workers in order to maintain core business operations. They were introducing digital means of making health and benefits accessible. Those in global roles had to decide how to prioritize their time – worrying about an onsite clinic in the Philippines, or ensuring compliance with evolving OH&S legislation in Colombia? They were simultaneously forging new relationships with safety, risk managers and operations, responding to the crisis and planning for worksite returns. As we noted in our 2021 Global Talent Trends Study, “COVID-19 didn’t just invade bodies, it exposed the cracks in our existing structures and accelerated change toward what was previously termed the “future of work” on a seismic scale”.

Benefit professionals have always been agile. The quintessential benefit professional has seen it all and is rarely phased by new requests. Having grown up in the benefits business myself, when faced with a new challenge I could draw on strong command of group insurance underwriting, survey interpretation skills, deep knowledge of the provider landscape and an understanding of the hairy intricacies of benefits administration and compliance. Experience in labor relations, HR technology and employee listening rounded out my skills and gave me a comfort level with benefits issues in many countries, if only at a superficial level. And while the benefits ecosystem has been undergoing rapid transformation over the last decade, with digital health start-ups playing a greater role in employer-sponsored plans, still, before the pandemic I could count on a few familiar players (and in some markets, the government) dominating the landscape for health, risk protection and well-being benefits. Not so any more. Now, a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, while the benefit skills that I, and my fellow benefit professionals, have relied on for decades are not obsolete, they are clearly insufficient. The race to reskill feels like a marathon and sprint at the same time.

There is a new lexicon. Pandemials, stakeholder capitalism and return to care are important new terms. Classic policy definitions like “inpatient” and “outpatient” are outdated when care is obtained in the comfort of your home. Even the term “benefits” evokes feelings of entitlement during an era when much of the workforce expects their partnership with employers to include broader, more personalized forms of support. More than ever, people want their jobs to provide a sense of purpose, and employers have a new role in helping employees build skills that will enhance their emotional resiliency and overall prosperity.

There is a new benchmark. Benefits are now less about “is my plan at the 50th percentile?” and more about designing for value. Benefits professionals need to ask themselves if their plans are truly meeting organizational and workforce needs. Moreover, they need to challenge themselves. Our Global Talent Trends Study of business leaders in 46 countries around the world found that 68% say they need to do more to make progress on ESG/sustainability. So why are some workforce segments (for example blue collar or hourly paid) in so many countries excluded from eligibility in their plans? Is the balance right between prevention and treatment if supporting employee’s health and well-being is a top executive concern? Do we need to consider adding supports for contract employees, given that 77% of executives say that the contingent workforce will make up more of the workforce in 3 years? While different medical plan caps by job grade are market practice in many parts of the world, is this rational? Will there be “health equity” metrics akin to “pay equity” ones? Answering these questions comes down to having a well-articulated philosophy on why benefits are offered in the first place. For many, it is time for a revamp.

There is a new pillar of health. In recent years, our view of what constitutes the pillars of health and well-being has expanded to include spiritual, intellectual, and environmental health along with the foundational pillars of physical, emotional and financial health. Social well-being has been edging into the conversation as well, but COVID-19 has made us realize just how critical social connectivity is to humans. Family and community are central, of course, but for many, the work environment is also a treasured and influential source of social connection. Benefit professionals can contribute to filling the gaps created by remote work by supporting digital gathering places, linking well-being initiatives more closely to (often extended) families and communities, getting involved in ESG initiatives and providing support for people experiencing isolation or loneliness.

In short, what today’s benefit professional needs to know has expanded far beyond the boundaries of the traditional benefit areas that once constituted the field. It’s not surprising that over a third of survey respondents cited “Not enough time during or after work hours” as a top barrier to reskilling. But since not evolving to meet the demands of the times is not an option, as an industry we must consider how we can “reskill at scale.” This requires us all to maintain our curious mindsets, actively seek new relationships with people outside our field/organizations, experiment with new ideas and, most importantly, invest in learning, no matter our level of experience.

Amy Laverock
by Amy Laverock

Global Strategic Initiatives and Solutions Leader, Mercer Marsh Benefits