Article: Extending holistic support to retain women at work

Other employee benefits

Extending holistic support to retain women at work

From gender-agnostic parental leave policies and flexible work arrangements to inclusive childcare support and sensitivity training programmes, Pooja Bhagat, VP of Total Rewards APAC & EMEA at Optum, shares how the organisation builds a progressive culture of support.
Extending holistic support to retain women at work

Supporting women in maintaining their participation in the workforce is not just crucial—it's transformative. Imagine a world where organisations are not just workplaces, but champions of gender equality, constantly rethinking and implementing initiatives that ensure women can continue their careers long-term. 

Picture this: A woman takes a career break, whether to start a family, care for a loved one, or pursue personal growth. In our envisioned future, she wouldn't return to work feeling the weight of social stigma. Instead, she would re-enter a workplace that celebrates her choice and values the diverse experiences she brings back. Family caregiving responsibilities wouldn't be seen as barriers but as enriching life experiences that enhance her professional capabilities.

In an exclusive interview with People Matters, Pooja Bhagat, Vice President of Total Rewards APAC & EMEA at Optum discussed how organisations have the power to create a supportive environment for their employees' diverse needs, and how benefits like CareNine and CareNine Beyond support expecting and new parents in their childcare journey. She emphasised that addressing the diverse needs of all employees through robust programmes can lead to better engagement and talent retention.

Here are the edited excerpts:

Please share how the CareNine and CareNine Beyond initiatives offered by Optum support women, as well as expecting and new parents?

Helping employees during different life stages is extremely critical for Optum, and programmes like CareNine and CareNine Beyond focus on a very special part of one's life—getting ready to become a parent. These programmes provide personalised support for both mothers and fathers from pregnancy through the child's first year

CareNine starts from pregnancy and continues up to two to three months post-delivery. It includes a dedicated case manager for the employee or their spouse/partner that serves as an anchor, helping with various needs—physical, nutritional, and emotional well-being. The programme also includes a team of specialists, such as gynaecologists, paediatricians, nutritionists, and counsellors, offering comprehensive support that has been especially beneficial during high-risk pregnancies and in identifying potential ailments in newborns early on, reducing risks through timely interventions.

The programme, with its best-in-class integrated approach, serves as a cohesive package, enabling individuals to access these services independently. It has proven extremely helpful for our employees during a mixed time of happiness and anxiety, reducing stress and providing much-needed support.

On the other hand, CareNine Beyond picks up where CareNine ends, supporting new parents as they adapt to lifestyle changes during their child's first year. This programme includes physiological sessions, nutritional counselling, emotional well-being support, and physical support. This 10-month programme begins from the child’s third month and lasts up to the twelfth month and can be personalised to meet diverse requirements. If a new parent experiences anxiety or postpartum depression, they receive necessary support through our Employee Assistance Programme. In addition to this, nutritional counselling, fitness programmes, and other specialised support are coordinated through the case manager, easing administrative hassles. Furthermore, new parents receive reminders for vaccinations and tests and are educated on how to care for their growing newborns, ensuring they feel confident and supported, especially when returning to work. By providing this comprehensive support, we create a healthy and happy post-pregnancy experience for new parents, demonstrating that we truly care about their well-being and fostering a strong bond between the employee and the organisation. This leads to higher motivation and retention, ultimately benefiting everyone involved.

What makes Optum an employer of choice in the talent market, and why do you believe organisations must implement robust pregnancy and childcare programmes to support employees and retain talent?

Creating a supportive, safe, and healthy working environment for women employees throughout their pregnancy and childbirth journey, as well as extending support to expecting fathers, is crucial. The phase of expecting and new parenthood is extremely stressful, filled with both happiness and anxiety, especially for first-time parents. Additionally, as family structures have evolved into more nuclear and smaller units, new parents today are more reliant on external support systems. Providing the right kind of support and forums where employees can express themselves, ask questions, and feel psychologically safe is a game-changer. These programmes can help more women return to the workplace by creating a comfortable environment for them.

  • Organisations need to acknowledge that each employee's needs are unique. While a generic programme might exist, what each employee leverages from that programme can differ. 
  • Creating an inclusive environment that considers every employee's unique situation is essential. We have young parents as well as those choosing to have children later in life, and all should feel respected and valued in a safe environment. 
  • In addition to this, programmes focusing on raising children and parenting send a bigger message that the organisation is inclusive and maintains a dialogue with employees about the support they need during different life stages.
  • Flexibility is key, whether it’s remote working, flexible hours, or allowing early leave for doctor’s appointments. It’s about intentionally creating an environment where everyone—from leaders to supervisors to colleagues—is supportive. Policies and programmes like these signals to employees that the organisation is here to support them through this life stage. Such an environment helps remove biases and stigmas associated with returning to work after motherhood. 
  • Women often hesitate to return to work due to these stigmas, and by addressing them, we can help them come back and thrive. These programmes not only cover pregnancy but also provide support beyond that, forming a stronger bond with our employees and demonstrating that we are there to support them through significant life stages. This makes employees feel valued and cared for, leading to higher motivation and retention.

Ultimately, as mentioned above, programmes like CareNine and CareNine Beyond are ways in which organisations like ours support our employees and their families, ensuring they feel valued and want to remain a part of our organisation.

When it comes to childcare support, both parents need to participate equally. However, not many organisations offer sufficient leave or initiatives for fathers to support childcare. How do these initiatives contribute to breaking gender stereotypes surrounding maternity and paternity leave?

Our CareNine and CareNine Beyond programmes cater to both expecting parents, not just mothers, and support various paths to parenthood, including adoption and surrogacy. By doing this, we challenge existing stereotypes and encourage the involvement of both parents in caregiving responsibilities. This also helps promote gender equity and a sense of shared responsibility and inclusivity in caregiving roles. For instance, our pregnancy care programmes help fight stereotypes, discrimination, and biases traditionally associated with pregnancy and parenthood, which often focus solely on the mother. We actively encourage both mothers and fathers to take advantage of these programmes, including our Parental Leave programme.

The Parental Leave policy is gender-neutral and addresses both primary and secondary caregiving. It is gender-agnostic in defining parents eligible for the 26 weeks of paid leaves for primary caregiver and 10 weeks of paid leaves for secondary caregiver, and includes not only childbirth but also adoption and surrogacy cases.

In addition to this, building awareness among managers and team leaders is crucial in breaking these stereotypes. We have created a Parental Leave Manager Toolkit that helps managers guide their team members through their parental journey. This toolkit includes a range of resources for parental support, conversation guides, checklists, and links to training websites, fostering a culture of inclusivity.

Furthermore, we offer flexible work arrangements and other parental support programmes that transcend traditional gender roles. This comprehensive approach ensures that all employees, regardless of gender, feel supported and valued throughout their parental journey.

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What steps has Optum taken to promote awareness and ensure that all employees, regardless of role or level, can benefit from these programmes? What effective strategies have been used to raise awareness and increase participation?

A key success factor for our CareNine and CareNine Beyond policies is communication and employee awareness. These programmes rely on employees or their families reaching out to us, and for that outreach to happen, there needs to be proper awareness.

  1. We run a comprehensive communication effort, which includes email newsletters and our Viva Engage platform, which helps us communicate and engage with employees about new policies or remind them of existing ones. Employees have access to links where they can quickly and easily find information and support services.
  2. Beyond direct communication, we also leverage managers as key points of contact with employees. We provide managers with toolkits and other educational materials as part of our manager effectiveness training. This way, managers can be more aware of their team’s needs and situations, providing the right knowledge and resources or referring them to the appropriate support services. This approach ensures that expecting team members, new mothers, and new fathers are fully aware of and can leverage these programmes and policies. By doing this, managers reinforce that we care for and value our employees. 
  3. We offer a host of resources for before, during, and after pregnancy, creating a safe, comfortable, and supportive work environment. 
  4. We also have peer support networks to help spread the word about these programmes.
  5. Additionally, we constantly seek feedback from employees to improve our programmes and increase awareness, ensuring more people can benefit from them.

What effective initiatives does Optum have for supporting women employees, especially regarding their long-term workforce participation and overcoming social stigma during caregiving responsibilities?

Optum’s programmes like CareNine and CareNine Beyond are designed not just to ensure medical support but also to support women’s holistic well-being, including emotional, mental, and physical health. For instance, we offer health checks tailored to women’s specific needs, which differ from men's, and provide nutritional consultations that consider various factors like lifestyle and age. This level of customisation is available through these programmes and extends to our wider initiatives. Parenting, as we know, is incredibly challenging. Our programmes include parenting sessions led by experts to help parents navigate the overwhelming amount of information and find the right approach for their unique situations.

  • In addition, we offer resources for physical and emotional well-being, such as yoga and meditation sessions, and expert-led discussions on child and mother care. These resources are available to all our employees, addressing important topics relevant to their current circumstances.
  • We also have a comprehensive Employee Assistance Programme that offers confidential counselling. Many employees have expressed their appreciation for this support, which is available to both employees and their family members.
  • One of the unique aspects of the CareNine and CareNine Beyond programmes is their ability to be customised to individual needs. Whether it’s addressing lifestyle, physical fitness, emotional health, or family structure, these programmes provide a supportive space where employees can get answers to their questions, address challenges related to parenting or pregnancy, and debunk common myths.
  • Emotional and mental well-being is a crucial aspect of these programmes. From the moment a couple decides to start a family, they face numerous challenges, and having extended support during this time is essential.

What innovative strategies has your HR team employed to attract and retain top talent in today's competitive market? Can you share these practical strategies in line with current trends and challenges in the talent market?

In today's competitive environment, prioritising employees' needs is absolutely necessary, especially if you want to have a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining top talent. Our strategy and focus are very clear and data-driven. We leverage insights from hiring, employee development, engagement, and retention to set priorities and measure progress. One of the key ways we gather these insights is through regular employee surveys. These surveys help us understand and measure employee sentiment related to fairness, affirmation, safety, identity, and connection. 

Our recruitment practices and programmes are designed to bring diverse communities into our workforce, including LGBTQ+ individuals, people of different ages, college graduates, and those with disabilities. We also have specific programmes like SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results), which supports gender diversity through returnships, and initiatives for hiring veterans from the armed forces.

  1. From a development perspective, we offer a wide range of learning solutions as an investment in building the talent we need for the future by upskilling internal talent with the necessary functional and domain expertise. We provide various learning pathways for different roles within our organisation, including across different geographies where our talent pool resides. This is supplemented with career enablement programmes that offer training on themes like accelerating change and mindfulness in the workplace, fostering both functional growth and leadership development.
  2. We also provide career pathing for team members and coaching services for women, leveraging external coaches to support women leaders. As an organisation, we strongly believe in mobility, and our talent management initiatives support a workplace where employees can leverage their strengths and capabilities for long-term careers with us. We continue to enhance and leverage technology platforms to support teams working across different locations and encourage mobility across the enterprise.
  3. Employee resource groups (ERGs) are another vital part of our strategy. These voluntary groups are typically based on shared characteristics, demographics, or experiences, helping to create supportive allied communities within the organisation. For example, our Targeted Leader Career Pathing ERG helps develop women colleagues into successful leaders.
  4. On the engagement and retention side, we use our employee benefits to drive engagement and retention. Our benefits include not only maternity support but also daycare benefits, comprehensive health insurance coverage (including same-gender partners and fertility treatments), and gender-neutral parental leave. These benefits are continuously reviewed and updated to address real-life situations today, all with the intent of becoming an employer of choice.
  5. Furthermore, we use employer branding as a tool to inform and engage our employees continuously. This engagement is both widespread and targeted, ensuring the best understanding of our programmes and policies. We leverage various platforms, including social media, to reach the younger generation creatively. This can include employee stories, leadership interviews, videos, and employees volunteering to share how they have used the programmes. All of this helps create more awareness among our employees.

Our approach is focused on attracting, developing, and retaining a diverse set of talent that supports our strategic growth priorities. Supporting the well-being of our workers builds a culture where people feel cared for and empowered to innovate. This helps us create new technology solutions and drive a more modern, high-performing health system and a healthier environment for everyone.

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Topics: Other employee benefits, Employee Relations, Diversity, #HRCommunity, #Retention

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