The Future Of Employee Benefits: Healthcare And Income Protection Will Take Center Stage | Kara Hoogensen


In this podcast episode, Kara Hoogensen, Senior VP of Specialty Benefits at Principal Financial Group, discusses how employee benefits are changing as companies adopt hybrid work models and tune into employee needs outside of the workplace.


Kara Hoogensen



Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:00:17] Welcome to the Future of Work podcast by Allwork.Space. I’m Ceci Amador de San Jose. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:00:23] Today I’m looking forward to talking with Kara Hoogensen about the evolution of employee benefits as organizations plan to embrace a more hybrid work model and how leadership can think through a recalibration for a continued Covik-19 world. Kara, welcome. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:00:39] Thank you so much for having me, Ceci. I’m looking forward to our discussion. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:00:43] For those of you not familiar with Kara, Kara is a senior vice president with Principal Financial Group. She’s in charge of special key benefits for U.S. insurance solutions and she’s responsible for group benefits, business area that she previously led as vice president, as well as the individual disability income business line and a sales compensation administration area. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:01:07] So, Kara, I just want to jump right into this. And what are you observing regarding benefits and Covid 19? I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of talk, a lot of changes coming. What have you observed from organizations? What input are you getting from them? From the workers? 

Kara Hoogensen [00:01:25] Absolutely. And you are spot on in terms of there is a lot going on as employers think about how best to support their employees during this unprecedented time. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:01:41] We are trying to do our best as a company to stay in tune with their thinking. And so employers are seeing that their employees are stressed and overwhelmed, and that’s coming from additional family and caregiving responsibilities. They’re also concerned as a result of the economic environment. Are there going to be impacts to pay the work hours that they may have, you know, to complete the work or, you know, sources of income, particularly if someone’s in a position where they require government or based their income on commissions and tips? There’s also just, you know, the environment and the stress that comes in living in, you know, covered 19, a global pandemic. And so in light of this and many other factors, we are seeing different ways and an increased interest in employers, how they are trying to take care of their employees. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:02:43] What are some of these new ways and different changes of employers taking care of their employees? I know the principle group recently published some results on the well on well-being and employee stress and burnout. Do you think there will be an increased focus on things like well-being benefits? And if so, what could a shape or what will these benefits look like in your opinion? 

Kara Hoogensen [00:03:11] Absolutely, You’re absolutely right. We did just release our wellbeing index and we actually had taken the temperature of businesses in the United States in June and then just recently did that same thing in September.

Kara Hoogensen [00:03:27] So we have the opportunity to kind of see how employers are thinking differently or not. Over that three month time frame. And again, you highlighted one of the key things that we’re seeing come from this most recent research. There is a significant increase, in fact. Thirty two percent of employers indicate that they are interested in providing mental health and wellbeing programs to their employees. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:04:00] In light of those stressors that we just talked about a couple of minutes ago, you know, I think the way that those programs are going to be designed is going to vary by the particular employer and the needs of their particular employees. At this time, I think it’s so important that employers remain in touch with how their employees are feeling. What are the root causes of the stress or the anxiety that those employees may be feeling? And then the employer to work with their financial professional or their trusted contacts or service providers directly to really have a conversation around. In light of what those stressors are and those root causes. What type of program makes sense? It could be access to kind of more of a traditional employee assistance program. It could be more flexible than the employer has already put in place in response to the pandemic. It could be, you know, types of perks or additional time off. There’s just a whole variety of things that employers can do based on what their employees need and based on kind of the state of the business itself. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:05:18] I think it’s great that there will be a lot more focus on the well-being of employees. And I agree that there are definitely different stressors right now. One of the things that I think will change a lot is the benefits of the fact that a lot of people will be working remotely on a more permanent basis, even if not full time. How will this change the benefits landscape? Because I’m assuming a lot of the kind of perks that came with the office, they will in some way need to be translated into the home environment or remote working environment. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:05:57] What are some ways that you think organizations will be able to provide benefits that take better care of workers that will be transitioning from an office to remote work arrangements? 

Kara Hoogensen [00:06:11] Certainly. Great question. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:06:14] There are some benefits that, you know, really are not going to look any different, whether an individual is working in the office or working remotely. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:06:25] Now, how they go about accessing those benefits, particularly during an annual open enrollment, which many companies do about this time of year that may look different, that traditional face to face meeting that many companies have used in the past in order to make sure employees understand the benefits available to them and talk them through how to make any changes that they want to make in light of their personal circumstances. That probably is going to look different and have much more of a it’s going to be virtual, whether it’s a zoom meeting or whether, you know, it’s accessed through an app. All of that to make sure that they can still receive that same information. But underlying that, when you think about vision and dental insurance, you think about other types of your medical decisions for your medical insurance. All of that, I think, is going to remain consistent regardless of where you’re working. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:07:25] It’s the things like, you know, the social aspects. So, you know, some employers, one of the perks of their workplace may have been to provide meals during working hours. And while we’re still seeing in our recent surveys that employers are aiming to do that, how you go about doing that at this point in time is probably different. Trying to leverage outdoor settings, maybe instead of indoor settings, doing prepackaged meals, things like that. But one of the biggest things I’m guessing many of us, virtually all of us have experienced is the social aspect in leveraging technology for that. So the Zoom, half the hours, the Zoome coffees, all of that to try and keep people engaged. There’s also, you know, non-cash gifts that employers are trying to provide employees and make sure that they are feeling valued, recognized and acknowledged. One example I can provide is I’m aware of a leader whose employees lived in roughly the same geographic area. And so she took part of her day and delivered them baked goods at their house, just as a way to say thank you for the extraordinary effort that they were putting in during the pandemic. And it was a great chance to connect, you know, safely from each other. But at the same point in time, to reconnect after not having actually been face to face after a period of time. And its gestures like that that carry so much meaning and help can have such a positive impact during these times that we’re navigating our way through. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:09:11] So in summary, I think there are some changes that will take place to benefits. But there’s there’s other things that will remain the same. Just how you go about accessing it might be different. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:09:23] That completely makes sense, and that’s a really sweet story. I agree that organizations and leaders in particular will kind of need to get creative to figure out ways to keep employees engaged, particularly. I think that at the beginning, everyone was kind of more pumped than motivated. We all thought it was going to be a shorter term issue, working from home, working by ourselves. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:09:49] But now, as the months have gone by, I feel like it’s getting harder for people to keep that engagement up. And so I think it’s definitely something the leaders will need to focus on. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:10:01] And you were talking about the social aspect of the office, and that’s something that I’ve been reading a lot about, that that’s mostly what people miss from the office, is that social aspect. And so finding ways to incorporate that into benefits programs into the day to day work coming to the day, a daily workday of people will be super important. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:10:26] And then I know that in your latest research, you found that most small businesses aren’t looking to make changes to their benefits programs. Do you think this is something that’s only happening at a small business level? Do you think larger organizations share that thought or do you think this will change now as the situation kind of like continues to be so unprecedented? 

Kara Hoogensen [00:10:53] Great question. And as we went out and gathered input as part of our research, we took a look at employers that had anywhere from two employees, up to 10000 employees. 

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Kara Hoogensen [00:11:09] And really, we’re not seeing a significant difference in terms of the. Degree to which different sized employers are looking to make changes to their benefits programs. And when I say make changes, looking to maybe take away benefits, they are still just a tremendous recognition that benefit programs are a valuable and a key way that employers attract and retain talented people to ultimately support their business. And so I think we’re going to see changes like we talked about in terms of how we access benefits, maybe some different types of perks. There might be some changes in the level of employer contribution to support benefits relative to the amount that employees contribute to those benefits. But ultimately, that benefit offering is going to remain a significant component of the overall total compensation that an employer offers, regardless of the size of employer in question. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:12:26] Speaking about the employee and like what they will be looking at other than just compensation. Do you have information about the top benefits that employees are looking forward to that they’re expecting from their employers at the moment? Could be wellness programs, income protection. I know that remote work used to be seen as a perk and a benefit. But I think that’s kind of like more expected now. In your experience and from what you’ve observed, what our employees are currently asking for in terms of benefits. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:13:06] Sure. We do see that there. There continues to be a strong interest in health care. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:13:16] Offering some sort of health care benefit is really table stakes for employers to attract and retain top talent at this point in time. What we also are seeing, though, is that employees are more aware of the risk that that exists or their own livelihood, that they may encounter a situation where they’re not able to work for a period of time because they have an accident or they become sick. And I think that’s just an on the one hand, it’s so unfortunate that many, maybe all of us know at least one person that has been directly impacted by Cauvin 19. You know, one of the benefits, if you can call it that, coming out of this experience is that people are more aware of the fact that, you know, life can be very fragile and fleeting. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:14:19] And so what options do each of us have to help protect our families to have the income that they’ll need if the working individuals in that household aren’t able to work for a period of time or in the really unfortunate situation where maybe a loved one is away. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:14:42] So we’re seeing an increased interest and awareness around income protection benefits, as well as life insurance benefits that are available through the workplace. You know, that’s one of the big things that we see as a result of this current experience. Those are probably the health care income and life insurance are probably the top ones that I would highlight at this point in time. But again, it’s always so important to stay in tune with the particular employees at any particular business to really understand what’s most important to them and what’s going to help them achieve financial security. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:15:28] You just touched up on a point that I think is very important, and it’s that each employer should be tuned into the needs of their employees. What are some ways that employers can? Figure out and be better connected with their employees to see what their needs are like, what they want. What are they struggling with? How can organizations better adapt their benefits programs, but incorporate at the same time employees thoughts and input into it? 

Kara Hoogensen [00:16:05] You know, again, I think it goes back to every employer really understanding the best way to gather that input from their employee group. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:16:14] Certainly, it’s much easier for smaller employees if there is a business owner that has 15 employees. The ability for that business owner to actually have that personal relationship with each and every individual and have a conversation, you know, just ask how they’re doing and what stressors they’re facing right now and what things may help them address the concerns they have so that that employee each and every day can come to work, whether that be in an office or whether that be remotely and do their best work. You know, certainly as employers who are larger, that that ability to have that personal relationship is a bit harder. That’s where I think the leaders that are working most closely with those employees can have those more one on one type conversations together, that same type of information. But tools like taking poll surveys or having small group discussions, those become really important so that you can gather the collective feedback and a representative set of feedback from the employee group in order to inform the decision making. That company wants to or needs to make to keep their benefit program relevant. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:17:31] Perfect. And I agree that one, for the larger they’re going to face, the more challenging it can become to develop a very robust benefits package that would cater to the different needs of employees. And that’s another question I wanted to ask you. I’m assuming that the kind of demand and wants of employees change depending on their age, their family situation, their living situation. How can organizations create benefits packages that are more flexible instead of saying this is the benefits package that we offer everyone? What are some tools and resources that organizations can use to kind of like provide more customizable packages if that’s something that you’re observing that companies are willing to do? Or is this something that is still not taking place yet? 

Kara Hoogensen [00:18:29] No, it absolutely is taking place. And I think that that’s something that will continue. It is so important because every employee at any one company has a different set of circumstances. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:18:44] And so, you know, a twenty five year old individual that is living on their own has a different set of needs than an individual that has a partner and two kiddos under the age of 18 living in the same household. And so, you know, really it is within the overall benefit program. Taking a look at each of those benefit offerings and thinking about what degree of flexibility makes sense. So, for example, if we think about something like life insurance, protection, one of those things that is certainly getting more interest in light of the pandemic. You know, there can be a certain level of and often is a certain level of life insurance protection that the employer will pay for. And then there’s the optionality for the individual employee to purchase additional levels of coverage based on, you know, his or her particular circumstances. Someone that is is younger and doesn’t have a family, probably has less need at that point in time and doesn’t have a lot of debt and probably doesn’t have as much need as an individual that does have dependents and a partner that they’re trying to make sure or taking care of if something happens to the employee himself or herself. And so there is a process to go through in order to apply for that additional protection, insurance protection during the enrollment period. Another example would be for. The dental coverage, you know, certainly, again, offers flexibility on the levels of coverage and who gets covered under a dental offering. That flexibility has existed in the marketplace for a number of years and will continue because it is really important as we use benefits to attract and retain talent. Having a one size fits all plan or benefit program overall isn’t going to do much good for the employer in attracting and retaining that talent if the right level of flexibility doesn’t exist to meet the broadest group of employees needed. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:21:04] Perfect. Thank you so much, Kara. And before we wrap this episode up, I wanted to ask if there is anything else that you would like to add. 

Kara Hoogensen [00:21:14] You know, we are very committed to the small to medium sized business market and continue to see that businesses are finding ways to pivot and adapt their business models in order to survive. And in some cases thrive during this set of conditions that we all are living through. And I think, as we talked about already, just, you know, really making sure to stay in tune with the perspectives of the employees that are coming into work each day and trying to do their best work for the benefit of the business and the customers of the business, making sure that we understand what is going to motivate them, what’s going to help address that anxiety and the stressors that just naturally are inherent now because our intersection of home and work is taking place in a way that it never has before. And people are feeling more isolated, given remote work for so many people. And then the stressors of just trying to work as well as provide child care or dependent care and home schooling and the like. So really staying in tune with those employees and then designing a benefit program to help address those stressors. Employers are committed to taking care of their employees. That’s wonderful to see. And there’s lots of options out there on how best to go about doing that. 

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:22:45] Perfect. Thank you so much, Kara. And thank you, everyone, for tuning in once again to the Future of Work podcast.

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