Bucking the Status Quo: The Art and Science of Employee Benefits with Sander Domaszewicz

When Sander Domaszewicz graduated college with a degree in mechanical engineering, he never expected to wind up passionate about employee benefits, helping companies of all sizes implement innovative programs. Sander, now a Principal and Senior Consultant at Mercer, began his career in the family hearing aid business.

The Castlight team sat down with Sander to learn about his story, how he sees companies changing the game in digital health, and how he feels about the valuation of employee wellness programs.

From Hearing Aids to Total Health Management

In that first job many years ago, Sander was tasked with running all aspects of a small business with a handful of employees, as well as working with insurance companies to be included in networks to cover purchases for customers. Eventually, Sander was looking for a change, and was hired by Hewitt as an employee benefits consultant.

Today, Sander is fascinated by the intersection of art and science when it comes to employee benefits. He believes that when employees are happy, there are tangible results and a business-driving ROI, but that isolating exact cause and effect can be difficult.  Instead, he looks for overall impact or the total value on investment (VOI), that includes but is not limited to financial ROI. The VOI recognizes important boosts in other areas such as stress-reduction and greater employee commitment to the organization, leading to more effective service to customers from energized employees – these boost can be keys to success and more important than any direct ROI programs generate.

At Mercer, Sander heads up Health Consumerism and health engagement efforts for Mercer’s Total Health Management group, and has led many health innovation efforts developing and implementing non-traditional solutions that reshape the marketplace.  He often works with innovative companies that are forward looking, want to try new things, and ultimately build programs that are as helpful as possible to the employees they serve. The majority of his work revolves around emerging benefits and ways to encourage groups to become more involved and informed around health care cost and quality.

What it means to buck the status quo in benefits

Sander spends a lot of time considering core consumerism-focused areas of employee benefits, things like cost and quality transparency tools, health savings accounts, health reimbursement arrangements. But he also does a lot of innovative work with companies that want to buck the status quo.

“I work to design and craft new and nontraditional solutions to help address client needs,” said Sander. “I’m focused on creating the right solutions for individual clients, as well as packaged solutions that Mercer can leverage in the marketplace.”

Sander works with all types of clients. In just one day, he might work with a fully-insured Southern California employer in the health sector with under 1,000 employees, a mid-sized city government with unions and a large national entertainment company with more than 100,000 employees.

“I get to see a wide variety of clients across the country in all types of industries,” said Sander. “Even with this diversity of clients, most of the ones I work with are interested in doing something beyond the status quo and making a positive impact for their population.”

So, what makes a company innovative versus stagnant? To Sander, the companies that are the most successful are not afraid to do things differently. They also have a good understanding of their employees and what they want.

“The more innovative employers typically understand their employees better– they tend to listen to what their employees have to say and have systems for generating employee feedback.”

Finally, according to Sander, innovative companies that buck the status quo tend to fix things that are broken and are proactive at addressing things that are missing, uncovering areas of need or opportunity.

Seeing employee welfare as a value and an investment, not a cost

Sander has been in the employee benefits and healthcare space for nearly a quarter-century, and has seen a variety of changes since he’s been in the business.

“The mandate of benefits and corporate-sponsored programs has changed over time,” he said. “It used to be a pretty limited scope– there were five or six types of core benefits and services– such as medical, dental, vision, life insurance– that an employer was expected to provide.”

In the past, these programs were strongly driven by annual costs. Businesses saw employee benefits as a large expenditure, not a collaborative investment or a value add. “Benefits were seen as a cost to the organization and just something you had to do,” said Sander.

“Benefits have evolved into a way for employers to differentiate. These employers are now asking: ‘How can this be an important part of our culture and business? How can it add value? How can it be an investment as opposed to a cost?’”

Although there are still a good number of companies attached to the status quo, Sander has seen a large change in how employers approach benefits, and it’s largely to do with how they now see employee welfare as an important aspect of company culture, as well as a driver for business.

Using storytelling to introduce new programs at a company

Sander has developed strategies at and seen hundreds of companies implement new benefits programs. He’s seen what works and what doesn’t, and is convinced that telling a story is the best way to engage employees and get them excited about new offerings.

“Telling a story around tobacco cessation as opposed to just offering a tobacco cessation program can be a lot more impactful and powerful,” said Sander. “This is especially true if the company offers 3 or 4 initiatives that fit together in a cohesive way.”

For instance, a company might start by partnering with a credible entity like the American Cancer Society and communicate that to employees. Then, the employer might move towards a policy that only allows smoking in designated areas. After that, the employer introduces no smoking campus-wide.

“Putting all those things together in a strategic timeline and telling a compelling story is what makes these initiatives work,” said Sander, “It may be the best tobacco cessation program in the world, but without the right context, leadership, vision, and messaging, you’ll have a lot less success and a lot less trust.”

Of course, this sort of deliberate timeline is done in conjunction with the tobacco/non-tobacco rates for life insurance. So if you buy life insurance you’re going to have to pay more if you’re a tobacco user. That’s also maybe tied a year later to tobacco/non-tobacco surcharge for the medical plans.

But at the same time, people are given an opportunity to stop smoking with resources and incentives from the company. These resources are multi-dimensional and focused on what the employee needs.

The combination of digital with high touch

According to Sander, there’s more to digital health than the technology behind it. “When you use the word ‘digital’, you’ve relegated yourself to the more high tech side of the solution,” said Sander. “There’s a high tech side to things, but there’s also a high touch side.”

The best digital health solutions in the world find it hard to make a meaningful difference without complementary high touch, personalized experiences.

“When people talk about the digital health ecosystem, often times it’s easy to forget that people have messy complex situations that don’t neatly fit into binary process of zeros and ones. Sometimes they need to hash things out with live people,” said Sander.

In order to most effectively partner with individuals on their digital health journey,  employees need both digital and access to live people. The trends today are towards person-to-person solutions, such as telemedicine, advocacy or digital health solutions that can connect employees with live people to join them on their journey. There’s not enough blending of high tech and high touch solutions, and according to Sander, that’s a gap that needs to be addressed.

Sander has also seen that a huge explosion of investments and amazing opportunities in the digital health space that are driving the industry forward and expanding capabilities. “This change is helping everyone, a rising tide lifting all ships,” said Sander. “This includes incumbents that weren’t doing all that well before – they have to rise to the occasion too or risk becoming obsolete. ”

5 Tips from Sander on the art and science of employee benefits

Sander has helped countless companies choose employee benefits solutions and implement new digital health technologies. Here are the top tips he offered to companies looking to improve their offerings:

1. Pick your battles and tell a cohesive narrative

No one organization can do everything, which is why you have to pick your battles.  “Companies often have many care management programs and reasonable communication capabilities, but things are often disjointed today,” said Sander. “It’s on organizations to tie their programs together to tell a cohesive narrative to employees.”

2. Make sure your technology systems are working for you

Check your benefits and wellbeing infrastructure to make sure it’s working for you. Some employers try to build off of outdated HRIS or payroll systems when they want to create sophisticated digital benefits and health solutions. “If you have the right technology and support systems in place, you can create a dynamic and proactive benefits and health portfolio that can make a difference in people’s lives and health,” said Sander.

3. Have a feedback loop

Understanding and having a feedback loop is key to understanding what’s working for your employees and building trust. “Whether your feedback loop is anecdotal or formal, you have to understand what employees want,” said Sander. “That way, you can meet people where they are.” Feedback loops also foster trust between employees and their workforce. “You can’t get nearly as much value from benefits if there’s not a level of trust,” said Sander.  

4. Don’t hide the tradeoffs

There are often trade offs when you implement new solutions, which is why it’s essential that employers do what they say, and make things crystal clear. “Don’t tell employees only about the positives with a new offering without mentioning important considerations that can impact them.  They’re going to find out anyway. Often there are investments of time or cost to consider.” said Sander. “It’s much better to be clear about the tradeoffs and be as truthful as possible.”

5. Focus on the art and the science

Employee benefits are a science, as employers work to achieve cost savings, build the right strategy and portfolio of offerings. However, there’s also an art to all of this. Employers need to tell compelling stories, generate trust, and ultimately provide solutions that make employees happier.

“When it comes to offering new programming, you need to focus on both the art and the science,” said Sander. “The art is a little squishy, and it’s sometimes even harder to do. But it can be impactful and make a big difference.”

Conclusion

Sander has helped many innovative companies implement new programs that save costs, foster more positive company cultures, and ultimately help employees manage their health and well-being. There’s much to be learned – Sander recommends continuously updating your perspective on employee benefits and well-being. After all, it’s a value and an investment, not just a cost.

More about Sander Domaszewicz

Sander Domaszewicz is a Principal and Senior Consultant housed in the Mercer Irvine, California office working to “fix healthcare.” He heads up Health Consumerism and Health Engagement efforts for Mercer’s Total Health Management group, and has led many health innovation efforts developing and implementing non-traditional solutions that reshape the marketplace. His work often revolves around emerging benefits and ways to encourage groups to become more involved and informed around health care cost and quality. Areas of focus include solving client problems, health care strategy and transformation, consumer directed health care, health management, and benefit decision support.

Sander is a frequent presenter at health care and benefits-related events, is often quoted in the media around health and benefit issues, has published articles in Benefits Quarterly, Employee Benefit News, HR Magazine, Workforce and HR Executive and was awarded “Most Innovative Benefits Consultant” by IHC. His consulting assignments include work with many of the largest organizations in America, as well as many public and private entities of all sizes in the benefits, strategy and product development areas.