If you ask 10 HR professionals what their biggest challenge is, they’ll likely say 10 different things. It’s a testament to how diverse this crowd is. Each of those challenges, however, would likely have the same content: How do you best serve your employees? In this issue of “Faces of HR,” I spoke with one HR professional about supporting employees with mental health concerns and methods for successful benefits communication.
Meet Melissa Oliver-Janiak, the HR Director of Benefits at Standard Insurance Company.
How did you get into HR?
I started as an employment lawyer, and when I went to law school, I didn’t know what area of law I was interested in practicing. I was going because my father was a lawyer, and he was always really excited about his job, so I thought it would be fun. I worked at a law firm my second summer in law school, and the only area that appealed to me in corporate law was employment law. A lot of the other areas, like securities, litigation, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) work—I wasn’t interested in any of that.
I think I found employment law appealing because it’s about people and their experiences in the place where we spend so much of our time. That was very relatable to me. I found, at least where I was practicing law, that it wasn’t about getting companies out of trouble in a way that was bending the rules in some way; it was more about helping them write compliant policies, investigate issues, and address problems when they found them. I felt like it was good, interesting work. Eventually, I did go in-house, and I worked for a museum as its employment counsel. I got to spend a lot of time with the HR department, so it wasn’t just writing policies from afar or advising from afar; I was really there at the table with them.
I spent a lot of time with the museum’s VP of HR and the other senior members of her team talking about all the different types of HR decisions they needed to make, being a legal advisor, and acting as kind of a member of the HR team. When I got to see that team more up close, their work was really appealing to me. In my current role, I also started as employment counsel. A few years ago, a manager role opened up in the HR department, and I threw my hat in the ring. I was interested in actually being in HR as opposed to just working with HR.
Interesting. If you could go back, do you think you would have started off as an HR professional instead of going the legal route?
The lawyer stuff is still very much in my blood. I like that I have the legal compliance hat as well as the practical hat—I can kind of wear both. Obviously, in my current role, I’m not permitted to give legal advice to people—we have attorneys who do that—but I can spot issues and compliance problems. I’m in the benefits area right now, so a lot of what we do is about making sure we’re running our plans properly, they’re Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)-compliant, we’re filing things on time and money’s going to the right places. I like that I can still have that compliance eye, as well as help employees day to day.
Yes, that gives you a significant leg up in the world of HR. Do people do that thing where they ask you for legal advice when they meet you and find out you’re a lawyer?
Yes, but it’s usually not related to my area of expertise. They want real estate advice or some other thing, like tax advice.
Do your employees ask you stuff all the time, even though you can’t give them counsel?
Well, usually, the way we do things in my group is: I let them ask me as a first pass, and I say what my gut is and then go double-check it with our employment counsel.
What’s something you guys are tackling right now? What’s, like, the big thing in HR you guys are trying to solve or improve?
Gosh, there are so many things. We’ve done a lot of work in the business, and our company is very focused on l evaluating our processes. We’re obviously not directly customer-facing, but I happen to be in an area that is very process-heavy. When things are running well, then we know we’re getting things done efficiently and we’re getting the right information to the right place at the right time. But there’s always room for improvement. This past year, we’ve looked at all of our processes around our Human Resources information system (HRIS) and payroll and how benefits are configured within there. We use Workday as our HRIS, and we are just trying to make sure we really have everything documented in a way that makes sense.
That’s not very visible to people, and it’s not very exciting It’s really important work, however, because mistakes impact people’s benefits and their paycheck. We don’t want that experience for our employees, so that’s been a big focus. We’re also really focused on—just more from an overall improvement lens—wellness for our employees. How do we best help people feel good, be present and feel engaged at work.
I think mental health and wellness is an area that employers across the country are increasingly focusing on, because while claims are increasing, the provider networks are not getting any bigger. I think that is definitely an area where we’re determining how we can focus more resources to our employees. The demand is there, and the way things are structured is not currently meeting the demand.
It’s good to see people starting to finally tackle mental wellness. It seems to me like for years and years, the model was, “Just don’t talk about it. Let’s no one talk about it, and we’ll just move on and pretend like it doesn’t exist.”
Yes, we spend so much time at work— and there’s work stress, and there’s home stress.,. There’s stress in all aspects of our life, and the pace of things is only increasing. I’m sure this workplace is no different from most others in that there’s a lot of work to be done. I think the work our company does is good work and important work, but even that work is stressful. Our employees are managing short-term disability, long-term disability and life claims—and a lot of them. Those are stressful cases to work on, so we want to be there to support them. A person shouldn’t have to snap and suddenly have a really major depressive episode for their employer to support them. It’s just the everyday stress of what we’re all going through I think we can all use help with.
We have a new employee resource group (ERG) focused on mental health, and it sprung up spontaneously from employee demand. In fact, I just came from meeting with them and other members of my team to talk about what we have planned for stress month and for all the different themed months in the area. We talk about different issues and how we can partner together. We are trying to get more resources out to people.
That’s great. I don’t think I’ve heard of ERGs around that specific thing yet. Do you have other ERGs at your organization, as well?
Yes we do. We have all kinds of ERGs. There was a demand there, so hopefully, we can partner with them and put on some good programs and hear employees’ voices a little better. I think they’re a channel through which interested people or people who are concerned can go to find when the next meditation session is being offered or when the next mindfulness thing is happening. We’ve been publicizing things like that, but people don’t always read the HR news. Hopefully, we can start meeting that demand better.
I’ve seen research about how many HR e-mails are ignored by employees, and it was pretty high.
I don’t want to hear that, but I’m sure it’s true. You know what’s helpful is the digital screens. We now have digital screens in the elevator banks and in the hallway, so if we really need people to pay attention, we know they’re going to be standing and waiting for the elevator for a few minutes.
Nice. You got to go where the people are.
That’s definitely going to get people’s attention.
What’s your approach to making sure your employees understand their benefits, from the existence of benefits to the details of how they work?
If you ever get the answer to that, let me know. We try all kinds of things. We don’t have benefit fairs anymore, but we’ve had years when we had large group meetings. We’d schedule about 30 meetings in person in our offices in Oregon and then in some of the other large offices, as well as webinars. We try that right before or around open enrollment. At any time, people can call us and request a meeting with a benefits analyst if they have issues they need to talk about or questions about a particular benefit. They can call our HR direct line at any time also and talk to someone who can answer any questions and provide information.
We really try to have an open-door policy while not physically opening the door for people to wander in, but we’re inviting people to ask questions at any time. We have, I think, really great intranet pages that we always update, but there’s so much content that even on our own internal website, people sometimes get lost trying to get to the right place.
Yes, it’s a doozy because most people do their benefits the day before the thing’s up and the enrollment window closes, right?
They do it either the first day or the last day.
Is there anything going on right now that you’re really excited about in HR?
The corny thing is that because of my law background, the kind of day-to-day maintenance of things and keeping the shop running are kind of fun to me. However, the greatest joy for me is working with my colleagues and getting feedback from employees. Thinking about what we’re doing well and what we could be doing better, as well as generating new ideas that are particular to our company, what our employees need and what our workforce wants. That’s the work that’s really exciting. It’s saying, “OK, we’ve had this thing for a while; this thing actually isn’t a value to our employees, but this other thing is really exciting to them, and we can dig in and work on making that a really great benefit for them.”
I could definitely understand that—like a breath of fresh air almost, right?
Yes, I think being able to make changes in a way that’s responsive to employees’ needs is one of the really fun parts of my work.