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When ERGs, benefits teams work together, retention wins out

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Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi and Colin Quinn
Colin Quinn is the President of Included Health and and Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi is the VP and Medical Director of Behavioral Health at Included Health.

Over 50 years ago, the first employee resource groups (ERGs) emerged within the workplace to support racial diversity and reinforce what we now call “belonging.” But 50 years ago, we might never have predicted the positive impact these groups would have on our workforce. ERGs were originally designed as “affinity groups” to bring together employees with similar interests, shared experiences and/or similar identities to deepen connections and representation in the workplace, yet their role and value has evolved immensely. They continue to incite change and improvements across a host of workplace areas, including policy and employee initiatives, diversity and inclusion, employee engagement and retention, benefits, and personal and professional development.

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Now, amid the backdrop of a global pandemic and a much-needed emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, successful companies are intensifying investments in and expanding the role of the ERG (also known in some companies as business resource groups, affinity groups or employee networks). With nearly 90% of all Fortune 500 companies instituting this pivotal function, ERGs have become a core strategy to drive better outcomes for workers, employers and companies. Yet, with all this progress, we believe that ERGs remain underutilized in reaching a vital aspect of their potential: helping employers better the health and wellness of their employees and, in turn, better the health of their business.

The physical and mental health of employees are being challenged every day by the trifecta of events changing America, our workplace and our workforce. COVID-19, the continued inequity of care and understanding of underserved populations, and the rise of mental health conditions nationwide calls for companies to activate the next generation of ERGs to help safeguard the health of employees. What do you need to know to answer this call?

Companies must support the ERG in broadening current DEI goals with an amplified focus on inclusive health. While at many companies, ERGs are in place to deliver progress toward DEI goals related to hiring, recruitment, advancement and overall culture, we argue that understanding and delivering on the health needs of underserved populations remains untapped. ERGs may just be the most powerful tool we have to help ensure companies have the right healthcare benefits in place to meet the diverse needs of their workforce. The urgency to do so now cannot be overstated. We believe that today’s workforce is made up of a beautiful mosaic of unique workers yearning to feel heard and understood regarding their unique health needs.

For example, according to recent estimates, LGBTQ+ individuals currently make up 5.9% of the U.S. workforce and, as younger people enter the workforce, one in six adults (16.7%) in Generation Z considers themselves to be LGBTQ+. While ERG groups focused on women employees are most common, multicultural, disability and LGBTQ+ groups are emerging. Yet, clearly, more work needs to be done. These communities continue to report disparities in treatment and care, often postponing care and even falling short of seeking treatment amid a rising mental health pandemic where companies should be doubling down on access to the right behavioral services for employees.

As today’s “Great Resignation” continues, these sought-after employees have more say than ever in where they work, when they work and the health benefits they want to receive —a clear competitive differentiator and retention tool. With 87% of young employees citing DEI initiatives as very important to the workplace, they are telling you these health and wellness benefits must be as diverse as those you employ, and accessible to everyone. While healthcare inequities exist in every state, today there is a stronger reliance on virtual care to help ensure that employees have access to high-quality healthcare no matter where they live.

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Companies today have a timely opportunity to drive greater alignment and partnership between their ERGs, DEI and benefits teams. Employees will tell you exactly what they and their families need in order to better access the care they need. Still, they need the right forum, and a company that’s listening.

Members of the benefits team must partner with ERGs to establish trust, align efforts and establish processes to gauge continually what is (or is not) working and what could be improved. For example, members of the HR and benefits team should actively participate in ERG meetings or meet regularly with ERG leaders to get a pulse of what’s going on and what might be needed by their membership. Delivering a solution to employees is only one part. Collecting and tracking clinical and social determinant data, while consistently asking employees if they are accessing and realizing positive outcomes from certain benefits, will differentiate you.

This is exactly what we are doing through Included Health’s Communities, which is the leading dedicated care concierge and healthcare navigation platform for underserved populations, including the LGBTQ+ and Black communities. The platform improves care equity by increasing member trust in healthcare, connecting individuals to high-quality affirming care and providing culturally affirming advocacy and guidance. Not enough companies are taking this community approach, but we believe it’s the only way to forge real progress against deep-seated healthcare inequities that may exist in your own organization. And no one knows that better than employees themselves.

Just as ERGs can be the lifeblood of an organization, equitable, inclusive healthcare benefits can be the life raft. But only if you truly know what your employees want and need. And while ERGs are not a novel concept, as the role of ERGs continues to evolve, the impact these groups have on the health and wellness of the workplace—and your business—should be a natural extension. An extension worth the investment and focus.