I love the beginning of fall. It feels like the season of something new — new colors, new school year, new fantasy football prospects.

The season also gives me the chance every year to sift through dozens of nominations for EBN’s annual Benny Awards — which recognize excellence in the employee benefits/human resources field. I love learning about amazing benefits professionals all over the country who are making a big impact on their workplace, the benefits industry in general, and most importantly, the lives of their employees.

That was clearly evident with Sarah Sardella, senior director of global benefits at Akamai Technologies —and our 2017 Benefits Professional of the Year. For her, successful benefits programs aren’t entirely about ROI and they aren’t all about making big dents in the healthcare budget — historically the norm for most companies. It’s more about creating programs that will better the lives of the company’s employees and meet their specific needs. In the case of Akamai, that meant helping stressed-out, high-functioning tech employees. That took the form of a bevy of enviable benefits that aimed to help create a work-life balance: flexibility, unlimited time off, paid family leave, caregiving benefits and so on.

Matching 401(k)? Generous health benefits? Those are table stakes now, Sardella explained to me. “It’s the programs that go beyond the foundational benefits that typically serve to differentiate one company from another,” she said. “Those are also the things that employees tend to talk about the most.”

Talk to any employee about why they love their company, and answers usually run the gamut — from generous time-off policies and flexible schedules to fun work events and a great company culture. No one’s getting too excited about a PPO or health risk assessments.

It’s about the big picture, Sardella says. “Compensation, incentive programs, the work environment and the company culture are just as important,” she says. In short? It’s about employee engagement — if a worker feels like their company cares about them, they will care more about their company.

That’s a philosophy shared by this year’s other impressive Benny Award winners.

· Julie Wilkes (Benefits Leadership in Health Care), North American Wellness Program Lead, Accenture
· Cliff York (Benefits Leadership in Retirement Planning), Head of Pensions & Benefits, Americas, BP
· Becky Cantieri (Judges’ Choice) SVP, Human Resources at SurveyMonkey

I’m excited that Sarah and Julie will be two of our speakers at our Benefits Forum & Expo in Boca Raton, Fla. Sept. 18-20, speaking about benefits that matter to employees.

The forum is a great place to meet other HR and benefits professionals who are passionate about their business and, above all, passionate about creating offerings that make a difference in employees’ lives.

I hope you can join us.

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