It’s an odd interstitial time, these strange, quiet, between-the-holidays work days – where employees who forget (or are too busy) take their vacation days or visit the dentist during the rest of the year desperately find themselves trying to max out their use-it-or-lose it benefits.

But it’s also a good opportunity to look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the benefits world in 2013, and to see what we might be able to look forward to in the coming year.

After one especially contentious fall and the realization that the real-world rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions couldn’t have been more clunky and ill-received, perhaps the biggest hope for 2014 is that the newer wave of mandates (Andrea Davis’s story on the subject is a good look ahead to what needs to be on your checklist later next week) will deploy just a little more smoothly.

One of the final conversations I had with David Albertson, our much-beloved and much missed editorial director, was about how significant we saw the Obamacare debacle being for the president and his legacy, as his second term moves into full swing. I opined that it was somewhere between the Lewinsky scandal for Bill Clinton and maybe Vietnam for Lyndon Johnson – an indelible PR disaster, though there’s still plenty of time to make some much-needed tweaks. Maybe.

I do wish the president the best during his own Hawaii vacation this week as he’s taken on a visibly downcast and defensive tone in his last series of press conferences when asked to, again and again, apologize for the online access problems and the truly unglamorous debut of his namesake program. The rest will do him some good.

You’re very much aware that the ACA actually has somewhat limited impact for those who administer existing employee benefits programs; in 2014, it seems to be a matter of continuing to cross those t’s and dot those I’s and … maybe communicate with your employees that their current health care options really aren’t so bad, by comparison.

Maybe the worst impact of the whole ACA debacle is that it so cunningly served to divert attention from other equally important portions of the benefits landscape, meaning that a much-needed refocusing on issues such as 401(k) participation or even wellness once again fell to the sidelines.

Retirement planning just never ever seems to be a sexy topic, unfortunately – it’s an abstract concept and maybe we all just imaginarily presume that our futures will be simple because our grandparents (and some of our parents) enjoyed workplace pension plans that helped them coast into their golden years.

Nowadays, that’s an incredibly rare commodity, and as we’ve shifted the responsibility for retirement planning onto employees themselves – and then done very little to inform, excite or motivate employees to keep up their contributions – it’s a silent epidemic that will turn into a huge issue in the future. In the meantime, I know it’s more fun to talk about “Duck Dynasty,” so … the problems will continue to persist.

And with New Year’s Resolution time just days away, maybe 2014 can be a year that those various wellness initiatives we all offer but also get shuffled to the bottom of the inbox pile can really be given some extra oomph. Actually using an application on your phone to help monitor exercise and weight loss (and to motivate or even publicly embarrass participants into more direct action) can be an absolute life-changer; like everything else, it just takes some focus, and we don’t do focus so well, unfortunately.

I wish you the best for the new year and … as I say, pick a project and try to stick with it. Employees do appreciate the help, when it’s offered; the communication just needs to be a two-way street.  

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