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Student loan repayment benefits, paid leave policies, compensation trends and a new movement among employers to buck tradition and take control of employee healthcare: Those were some of the main talking points at the Benefits Forum & Expo, held last week in New Orleans.

Benefits managers from Walmart, Facebook and Estee Lauder joined other industry experts and brokers during the annual conference, hosted by Employee Benefit News and Employee Benefit Adviser.

See also: Overheard at BFE18: Top 11 tweets from the Benefits Forum & Expo

Here are 15 key takeaways from the annual event.
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Student debt benefits are “not terribly expensive to fund or administer”
Though student loan benefits are gaining a lot of attention, they still aren’t a common workplace perk. Just 4% of employers offer student loan repayment benefits, according to statistics from the Society for Human Resource Management, in part due to employer concerns over the benefit’s funding, administration or ROI.

But benefits managers at Estée Lauder and financial firm Options Clearing Corp. have a message for employers: A student loan benefit is not hugely expensive, nor is it hard to administer. Even more importantly, it can have a big payoff for organizations.

“It’s a relatively easy program to fund by cutting from somewhere else, like compensation. Plus, it’s widely popular,” Erin Smith, first vice president of total rewards at Options Clearing Corporation.

Read more here.
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Time to scrap performance reviews?
Companies like Cigna, IBM and Digital Ocean are doing away with the traditional annual performance reviews, said Hannah Walker, total rewards director for OurHealth. Not only are the reviews stressful for employees, the scheduled meetings are ineffective at motivating the workforce.

Walker suggests replacing the annual reviews with continuous feedback. Employees feel supported through open communication, and performance issues can be addressed and corrected on the spot.

“When you do your work better, it makes you happier,” Walker said. “When you get recognized for it, you feel like you’re adding value to your team. But if an issue isn’t addressed right away, it makes you feel worse.”

Read more here.
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A good boss may be the best employee benefit
Having a good manager is one of the most important benefits a company can offer.

That’s according to Jeffrey Kowalczyk, senior investment consultant at Lowery Asset Consulting, who said companies need to train their managers to make sure they are creating a positive space in the office to retain top talent in a tight job market.

One in two employees have left a job to get away from a bad manager, supervisor or an overall negative work environment, Kowalczyk said. If an employee is unhappy at work, he said, it often follows them home and adds unnecessary stress, affecting their happiness and overall well-being.

“If you don’t think that’s an important benefit, you’re missing the boat,” he said. “Make sure that managers are providing a good work environment.”

Read more here.
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Chocolate the key to engagement?
PeoplesBank, a Massachusetts-based 19-branch financial institution with about 300 employees, relies on outside-the-box ways to engage employees — even before new hires start their first day of work.

The bank sends new workers a basket of chocolate-covered strawberries, which Janice Mazzallo, the company’s executive vice president and chief human resources officer, said sends a message not only to the new employee, but to their family at home.

“A lot of the work events they’re going to participate in involve family and friends,” she said at the conference. “We want to say, ‘Not only have you joined this great organization,’ but we want the people at home to know that too.”

Read more here.
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Walmart’s partnership with Even experiencing “stunning growth”
More than 250,000 Walmart employees — just under 20% of its workforce — are using its advance payday partnership with financial app Even, the retailer said.

That’s a 212% growth in participation from March, when 80,000 employees were enrolled in the program.

Walmart added the benefit in December, allowing 1.4 million of its employees to receive wages before their next payday. Instead of waiting two weeks between paychecks, Walmart employees can use Even to access a portion of wages for hours they already have worked. Financial tech company PayActiv also collaborates with Walmart on the service, which aims to help workers avoid expensive payday loans and avoid late fees.

“We’ve seen stunning growth beyond our expectations,” said Scott Pullen, Walmart’s senior benefits manager.

Read more here.
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Employers say they need to take more control of healthcare
“We’re paying the lion’s share for the care of most Americans in the U.S.,” said Milt Ezzard, vice president of global benefits at Activision Blizzard, the video game publisher of Candy Crush and Call of Duty. “In order for that to work, employers need to band together with each other and with good health carriers who can help leverage what an employer needs to have happen.”

In fact, he said, “the bar for healthcare is so low, that there is so much [employers] can do to make a difference.”

Read more here.
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Pride is stopping employees from participating in financial wellness programs
Why do employees fail to participate in financial wellness programs when they say they want them? The answer is tied up with pride, according to SunTrust’s financial well-being executive Brian Ford.

“They think that by participating in the program that it will negatively reflect on them both personally and professionally,” Ford said, explaining that many fear showing up and being “only one of seven dudes in the room.”

Read more here.
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Employers need to tout telemedicine options
Though 85% of employers with 20,000 or more employees offer telemedicine, according to a survey by Mercer, many employees don’t take advantage of the service.

“We’re seeing an increase in telemedicine use, but employers should educate their staff about this service so both parties get the most out of this benefit,” said Lois Irwin, president of telemedicine company EZaccessMD.

Read more here.
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Routine healthcare benefit audits are key
Small clerical errors can cost employers hundreds of thousands of dollars. But organizations can get that money back through routine maintenance of benefit records. Unqualified insurance claims and dependents manage to slip through the cracks and receive coverage through employee health benefits, according to experts who spoke during the conference.

“It’s good compliance of HR hygiene,” said Michael Makatura, director of client solutions at PlanSource. “It can be a dramatic return of dollars, and it ensures your organization meets IRS guidelines.”

Read more here.
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Lunch may help boost financial wellness participation
SunTrust’s financial well-being executive Brian Ford urged HR professionals to provide employee incentives to boost participation in financial wellness programs. Providing perks, such as lunch or raffles, usually doubles participation, he said.

“The incentive is helping the person get in a better place financially,” he said.

Read more here.
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Leadership support key to workplace mental health initiatives
There are five important steps for employers looking to build a successful program that promotes psychological health in the workplace: Commitment and awareness, support services, mental health training, return to work and accommodation processes, and the ability to measure progress.

That’s according to Monika Mielnik, senior consultant of human resources at Bell, a telecom company headquartered in Montreal.

“It’s important to engage individuals across the organization to establish successful mental health initiatives,” she said, adding that getting executive support and sponsorship, a dedicated mental health leader, and cross-functional involvement are also key.

Read more here.
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Brokers must innovate — or risk losing their jobs
Benefit advisers must innovate or see their business escape into the hands of someone more ambitious and harder working.

That was the consensus of a panel of brokers, who spoke about needed innovation in the industry and why passion is so important in their profession.

“If you want to be an active manager of a health plan, you are working your tail off,” says Carl Schuessler Jr., managing principal of Mitigate Partners and BenefitStrategies. “If you want to be a passive manager of a health plan, you can call fewer people and do less work. You can spreadsheet them, but what value do you bring?

“I have to have something that drives me. I want to help people and help them save money. We have a chance to have a big impact to the employee base we deal with.”

Read more here.
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Employers’ retirement efforts need to go beyond offering a 401(k)
Employers must do much more to help their employees prepare for retirement beyond offering a 401(k) plan.

For one, they can step up their game by providing employees with personalized retirement readiness scores, said Jerry Yen, vice president of strategic partnerships at GuidedChoice.

What employees need to know is not what their 401(k) account balance is but rather “what it’s worth to them on a monthly income basis,” he said.

Yen encouraged employers to provide employees with “specific assessments about what they need to do now to be able to retire” and to “get deep into the analytics” of their 401(k) plans to determine metrics, such as retirement income ratios, for each employee. These ratios help workers determine whether they can match their current living standards in retirement.

Read more here.
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Employers need to closely examine paid leave policies
While some states like Washington and California have laws requiring family leave, more employers across the country are making moves to update and expand their paid leave policies, panelists said during the conference.

It’s important to think about where your company falls and develop a policy that employees will use, said Anna Steffeney, founder of LeaveLogic, a company that assists employers in managing paid leave.

That starts with examining who is already taking paid leave.

“Understand your current usage rates and who’s utilizing the existing benefits,” she said.

Read more here.
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Will robots replace brokers?
Is there a future where digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri could replace a broker in the benefits selection process?

If you’re doing your job well, the answer is most likely no, says Reid Rasmussen, co-founder and chief executive of benefits consulting firm freshbenies. But if you can learn to leverage new technology to your advantage, it can help you be a better broker.

“It isn’t about finding a ‘techier’ way to do something," he said. "But it's how do you use it to improve business and the way you interact with people?”

Read more here.