Boosting Employee Engagement

commonsense-reportingAccording to a recent article in Employee Benefit News, the long-lasting pandemic has many employers looking for ways to help employees stay in touch with their organizations and with one another. A survey by employee engagement platform Glint showed that more than 40 percent of employees say that being disconnected due to remote working is the biggest risk to getting burned out.

In response, LinkedIn has made updates to its popular B2B platform to make it easier for workers to share company content and stories about work-related events. LinkedIn is also addressing mental stress by offering new free courses on meditation. Employers large and small are taking steps to build a stronger culture. If remote working is taking a toll on your organization, you may want to take a fresh look at LinkedIn.

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Beware Cyber Sickness

millennialsWith so many adults and kids spending increased time in front of bright screens, some may be experiencing what behavioral health experts call Cyber Sickness, a feeling similar to motion sickness. While researchers have linked this technologically induced feeling to virtual reality, some have found that it can result from spending extended periods of time looking at screens.

It appears that prolonged screen time can confuse the brain by making it think you’re moving. Visual messages from the eyes fail to synch with the inner ear and other receptors that tell the central nervous system you are moving. While symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches and poor balance can be experienced by children and adults, it seems to be most common in people prone to motion sickness. If you’re spending inordinate amounts of time in front of a screen, you may want to try…

  • Reduced recreational screen time
  • Taking short breaks to rest your eyes
  • Rotating between audio and virtual conferences
  • Closing your eyes or focus on something solid such as the edge of your desk
  • Use arrow keys rather than a mouse to slow the movement of screen images

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Blueberries and Your Heart

blueberriesCleveland Clinic, regarded as the number one healthcare system for cardiac care, wants you to know that a new study shows that in addition to great flavor, blueberries are good for your heart. Vitamin C and a wide array of healthy phytochemicals and anthocyanins help lower existing risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and more. In the six-month study, people with these and other characteristics who ate a cup of blueberries daily for six months were in better shape than those who did not. Vessels and arteries were in better condition with a 12 to 15 percent lower risk of heart disease. To receive the therapeutic benefits of blueberries, add a cup to oatmeal, a smoothie, salad or just enjoy your blueberries as a mid-day snack.

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Paying for Vaccinations

paying-vaccinationsFor the time being, the federal government is picking up the cost of the vaccine, with providers being able to charge an administration fee for actually giving the shot. Regulations require that insured and self-funded group health plans must cover the cost of the office visit associated with the vaccine as long as the primary purpose of the visit is to receive the vaccine. And regardless of whether the vaccine is provided in-network or out-of-network, there must be no cost sharing involved.

Plan documents must be modified to reflect the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations and the change must be communicated to plan participants. In the case of self-funded plans, ERISA disclosure rules allow 210 days following the end of the previous plan year for the plan sponsor to issue this notification. With all the questions surrounding COVID-19 vaccines, it is recommended that employers be proactive in letting participants know that vaccinations will be covered.

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Do You Have a Vaccine Strategy?

vaccineThroughout the past year, organizations large and small have taken many steps to protect their workers. While those that could have people work remotely likely did, others provided PPE and modified workspaces to achieve social distancing. As states continue to loosen their restrictions and more and more people become eligible to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, employers that intend to bring people back to the workplace are working to determine how best to proceed. While very few seem to be requiring that workers get vaccinated, many employers are providing incentives to those who do.

Employees are Looking for Guidance

For employers that place a high priority on wellness, deciding how to proceed with vaccinations is critical. Employees look to their employer for meaningful health benefits and are likely expecting guidance in this area as well. Some HR directors have responded with information about the safety of available vaccines. Because people consume information differently, companies are using many forms of media to encourage vaccinations. Whether you use emails, webinars or videos featuring co-workers, persistence is paramount. One announcement won’t do the job – it will take a consistent campaign to overcome the skepticism that still exists. If you want to reinforce communication with an incentive, you might consider time off to get the shot, gift cards or several extra hours of pay.

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Unemployed to Get Help with COBRA

cobraIn the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which was signed into law by President Biden on March 11, 2021, there are several provisions for healthcare plans, including a 100% subsidy of coverage premiums for eligible COBRA enrollees. The subsidies, which will run from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021, will be paid to employers by the federal government as payroll tax credits.

The subsidy will last for six months at most, ending on the earlier of the individual’s maximum period of COBRA coverage (generally 18 months) or September 30, 2021. Subsidies will also end early for individuals who become eligible for coverage under another group health plan or Medicare. Those employees who terminate employment voluntarily are not eligible for the subsidy.

Notices are Required

Employers should talk with their TPA about notice requirements and to determine who may be eligible for the subsidy. As a result of the eligibility period running through April, 2021, a list must be compiled including individuals who terminated employment as far back as November of 2019. A Notice of Assistance must be provided to individuals who become eligible to elect COBRA coverage between April 1 and September 30, 2021. Eligible workers who haven’t elected COBRA by April 1 and those who elected COBRA but then discontinued it must also be notified, since former employees have an extended election period running for 60 days after April 1, 2021.

Finally, a Notice of Expiration must be provided between 45 and 15 days prior to the subsidy expiring, unless the subsidy is expiring because the individual has become eligible for coverage by another group health plan or Medicare. The DOL is expected to issue new model COBRA forms within 30 days of the March 11, 2021 enactment date. In addition, individuals are required to notify the group health plan if they forfeit eligibility because they have become eligible for another group health plan or Medicare.

To learn more about the American Rescue Plan notice requirements, visit https://www.congress.gov/117/bills/hr1319/BILLS-117hr1319enr.pdf or contact us at your convenience.

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The Latest on Surprise Billing

An important part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 is the No Surprises Act, intended to address surprise bills and protect healthcare consumers who receive a “balance bill” for amounts charged by a provider but not paid by their health plan. The law, scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2022, will protect patients that go to an out-of-network facility for emergency treatment, patients needing to be airlifted to the nearest emergency room by an out-of-network provider and patients receiving treatment from an out-of-network provider at an in-network facility.

The new law establishes uniform, basic federal requirements for insured and self-funded group health plans, however states may adopt even stricter standards for insurers and providers in their jurisdiction. To date, 17 states have adopted comprehensive balance bill laws to protect their residents. Guidance for several situations will need to be provided prior to year-end, including how plans will distinguish between in-network and out-of-network providers in self-funded plans using reference based pricing without a traditional PPO network. Industry sources expect these regulations to be issued by mid-year.

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Benefits Employees Want Most

benefitsThe pandemic has had an enormous impact on every aspect of our lives, including the way employees view employee benefits. A recent Wall Street Journal article chronicled the changing attitudes of workers who are working remotely or in hybrid settings. In virtually all cases, needs have shifted to things that contribute to employee well-being beyond the office.

Holistic Well-Being

When popular job search site Indeed surveyed 1,000 remote workers about the future of work, results made it clear that the need to support people’s mental and physical health outside of the workplace will continue long after the pandemic is over. Perks such as paid time off, flexible and remote working options and paid family leave are giving employees the support they need in a changing world. Depending on age and other workforce demographics, free therapy, personal financial planning advice and access to parenting coaches are doing a great deal to improve quality of life.

Changes to Family Leave

The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans reports that 63 percent of employers have made at least some change to their leave policies because of the pandemic. For employees who are also parents or caregivers, many have introduced emergency leave for childcare and eldercare. More than 10 percent are identifying resources and referrals for childcare, tutoring and backup or emergency child and eldercare with some providing financial assistance.

Companies are also supporting mental and physical health by instituting mandatory time off. Some do this by adding holidays or creating 4-day weekends while others have shut down for entire weeks because workers are unable to take customary vacations. Either way, employers and employees view these changes as some of the best things their companies could have done during the pandemic.

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New Ways to Benefit Mental Health

woman at desk

Many of us have read about actions some larger employers are taking to help employees struggling with psychologi- cal effects of Covid-19. Indications are that many small and mid-size organizations are taking positive steps as well. LinkedIn, a social media platform used by millions of businesses and individuals, is offering online courses to help employees address high levels of stress and fatigue. Meditation and how to deal with grief and loss are just two topics covered. A few regional banks are expanding telemedicine options to address some of the isolation experienced by those working at home.

Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that in November of 2020, 42 percent of Americans reported symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder. While many employers plan to introduce programs supporting mental health, only about a third of employees surveyed in the PwC Workplace Pulse Survey said their employer was doing so.

The National Council for Behavioral Health’s Mental Health First Aid program offers a great deal of information and resources to help employers and individuals cope. To learn more, visit https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/covid19/.

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The E-Cigarette Epidemic

e-cigaretteIn 2016, ads for e-cigarettes reached almost 80 percent of middle and high school age students in our country. While advertising is not the only force influencing kids, a 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 4.9 million high school students showed that 6 percent reported smoking cigarettes and 33 percent used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

While regulatory agencies have been slow to react, pediatricians point out that nicotine forms addictive patterns in the brain that can last well into adulthood. The aerosols that get into the lungs from vaping lack thousands of carcinogenic substances contained in tobacco cigarettes, but they still contain formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals. And because adolescent brains are still developing, physicians believe that e-cigarettes can serve as a gateway to vaping of marijuana, which can impair memory, learning and decision making over time.

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