The advantages of educating employees about their benefits through technology are many: The information transmitted to their Web browser or smart phone is always up to date, it's scalable to any population, yet allows an employer to individually tailor information to an employee.

The trick is finding out how to nudge employees to make behavioral changes utilizing benefits technology. One Web portal developed by Heinz pushes workers in the right direction.

"People are getting very comfortable with technology in everything from finance to travel. The same thing is happening with employee benefits where you weave in very effective technology-based solutions that can help people improve their health," says Dr. Kevin Wildenhaus, who leads the Behavioral Science and Data Analytics Group at HealthMedia®, a Johnson & Johnson company, and part of its wellness & prevention business.

"Some of the things that technology provides from a benefits perspective are ease of access, convenience, privacy confidentiality and scalability," he adds.

Heinz incorporated all of these aspects into their Web portal, HeinzTotalComp. Originally launched in 2002, the portal allows employees to view and learn about their benefits and pensions. Over the years, the portal was expanded to include executive rewards, equity grants, a bonus calculator and retirement programs.

In 2009, the portal transformed once again into My Heinz Place, born from a fear that employees, specifically upper management, didn't fully appreciate their benefits opportunities.

"My Heinz Place was positioned from the viewpoint that even our executives don't understand our employee value proposition," says Randy Keuch, vice president of total rewards at Heinz. By visiting the portal, executives "can see within 10 seconds exactly what they would forfeit if they walked out the door ... It's a powerful tool."

The revamped portal addresses health, wealth and career paths. The company embedded links to health and wellness programs on the health portion. The career path portion lists any training programs the employee participated in and even shows an animated career path, especially for sales employees.

It also shows the worker's educational background - any courses they've completed within Heinz as well as any online courses. These include internal training programs or classroom courses on behaviors, leadership or computer skills.

"We're encouraging companies to rethink everything from the employee's perspective: my health, my wealth, my career, my learning opportunities. It's much more personally relevant than traditional categories like benefits, compensation, HR," says Scot Marcotte, technology solutions leader at Buck Consultants, who helped Heinz develop the portal.

Explains Keuch: "[Employees] are able to look at their entire retirement portfolio and figure out their entire net worth based on what's in the system. It's a fully integrated, total rewards approach because our executives also have financial planners and our directors get access to an annual seminar with a financial planning company and all our employees have access to a planner line."

The utilization numbers for My Heinz Place speak for themselves: 92% of the population has signed in at least once during last 12 months. More than half log on four times a year. During open enrollment, usage goes up dramatically. Usage also peaks when bonuses are handed out to the salaried workforce.

Officials say the portal also scores highly in employee focus groups and surveys. Most significantly, about two-thirds of employees polled believe senior management cares about their health.

In a study with over 3,000 employees, cites Wildenhaus, the highest correlation to overall job satisfaction was the perception by employees that employers care about them and are committed to their well- being. Those that perceive this are the most satisfied and loyal workers.

Heinz has above a 90% engagement rate among employees, something Keuch believes is buoyed by the portal because it is easily accessible and transparent.

"The employer will benefit from goodwill, loyalty, retention and increased knowledge [attained through the portal]. We get much smarter questions these days," he says. People are moving on from the basics and now know what a deductible is, for example.

A portal also reflects a company's culture and helps garner trust from the employee base. "In these difficult economic times to have that level of trust from employees is invaluable," Keuch says.

Using behavioral science

Experts advise that employers design a portal from an employee standpoint by consolidating and integrating information.

However, even with the most well-designed Web portal, employers still need to get workers to make healthier decisions around wellness and retirement, two sections of the Heinz and other company portals.

After all, "the challenge with improving employee health and wellness is not only leading them to the water, but enticing them to drink it is as well," says Dr. Ian Z. Chuang, senior vice president and medical director for Lockton Benefit Group, Lockton Companies, LLC, a global insurance brokerage firm.

Many benefits technology experts agree that the best way to engage employees and help them change unhealthy behaviors is through behavioral science. According to the thinking around behavioral economics, people fear losing more than they value winning, he says.

"If people fear losing out on money, an activity or a wellness incentive, they're more apt to participate," Marcotte explains.

People also tend toward inertia: "This is the big behavioral economic concept in the HR world today. Defaulting employees into beneficial programs - like savings plans and medical plans - is sometimes the only way to overcome that inertia," he adds.

Another aspect of behavioral science is that people are heavily influenced by their peers.

"The classic concept of testimonials still resonates. Social media now provides a great vehicle to share individual success stories," Marcotte says.

Employers can do this by referencing peer behavior and showing how others are engaged and participating. Present how many are taking advantage of wellness programs and are electing certain plans. In other words, show participation rates of people in similar situations to the individual.

Because employers can see which health plans their employees are looking at and electing in online portals, they can add additional or clarifying information for those plans that might be getting attention but little utilization.

From the combined study of medicine and the rapid adoption and incorporation of social media, we see the differences in people in how they prefer to receive information, exchange information and exchange experience, Chuang says.

"We tend to look at the overall demographics - the geographies, the cultural influences, the generations - to help narrow the best mix of media and message," says Marcotte. He also mentions that over time, employers can mine usage and participation data to tailor messaging directly to individuals.

"Get a chance to understand the demographics and the way they best react to certain media. From there, start building a technology plan," Marcotte advises. "Too often, it's the other way around: We build something and then hope it works. It makes so much sense to do that data analysis ahead of time to determine which method is the best method for our organization based on who our organization is and what our culture is. The ongoing effort then is simply tweaking instead of reworking."

Wildenhaus suggests employers build a program that addresses the population health level and is appropriate for the entire employee base, not just the sickest employees. From there, he advises the administrator target the individual.

"Organizations today should provide ready access to highly personalized information and use targeted messaging to nudge employees to actions in their - and the company's - best interest," says Marcotte. "We see technology as a wonderful enabler for all of this."

Wildenhaus suggests benefits teams start with a health risk assessment, asserting that they measure motivation to change behavior in addition to health data.

"Using behavioral science, technology and the data we gather from an individual's HRA, we can then intelligently recruit them into the right behavior change program," he says. With their permission, we can take personal information and privately reach out to them to engage them in subsequent programs."

A portal can be further customized to the look and feel of company branding so that employees feel connected to the platform in its consistency with company culture.

Embed seamless links to health and wellness such as a HRA, or programs for smoking cessation, weight management, nutrition, stress, insomnia, depression and disease management, says Wildenhaus.

Benergy Interworks, created by A.D.A.M., a provider of innovative online technology solutions for the benefits, health and education markets, recently introduced Benergy Helpline so that employees can call a dedicated 800 number or click to chat from the Benergy Communications portal if they have questions about their benefits.

"Benergy Communications gives people the ability to do [research or make changes] when it's best for the individual, not when it's best for the company," says Mark Adams, President and CEO of A.D.A.M.

That's the advantage of technology: It's an unceasing resource that, unlike HR/benefits representatives, is available beyond the 9-5 business day.

Avoiding 'spray and pray'

Wildenhaus presses employers to field a comprehensive participation strategy, in which they motivate, incentivize and communicate to employees.

"You can't just adopt the strategy, 'If we build it, they will come,'" he says.

In other words, a Web portal is a key communication device, but shouldn't be the ultimate solution.

"We want to think of the right way to reach and engage without always having to wait for somebody to come to a site. The portal itself isn't necessarily the end all/be all; in many ways, it's an enabler that helps get the right information out," stresses Marcotte.

He recommends that employers build their media communication and engagement strategy at once. This approach considers all possible channels, such as an outbound call from a call center, printed material, a message to a handheld device, a train-the-trainer Web seminar for a manager to share face-to-face messages with a direct report, an e-mail and tailored messaging on a Web portal.

A customer relationship management tool can keep track of all of these interactions to help determine which methods work best for which audiences, says Marcotte. This can go directly to the individual level as the administrator crafts highly targeted media and messages.

This measurable approach helps avoid the traditional "spray and pray" strategy, where employers "spray" out benefits information and "pray" it reaches employees. It also helps achieve more of a dialogue with employees. While the interaction may even be purely electronic, technology can create an ongoing conversation instead of one-off broadcasts.

Since visits to the Heinz portal spike during open enrollment and bonus season, Heinz takes advantage of these times as teachable moments to reinforce other messages like total rewards or financial planning.

The health care reform debate also spurred many employees to learn more about their health plan and personal wellness, a great opportunity to drive them to online resources.

As a result of reform, "employees are going to become more responsible for their well-being, both financial and health," says Adams.

To capitalize on employees' increasingly consumerist interests, Benergy provides a side-by-side comparison of plans' out-of-pocket costs and other plan factors. Its portal shows the historical rate of the individual's health care costs to compare with the deductible amount. The employee also has the tools to compare the spouse's plan.

Under normal circumstances, without the aid of a platform like Benergy, people usually choose the lower deductible because they don't know their costs. "This whole [idea of] consumerism, the individual becoming more responsible for their health, drives more information that's personal and up to date for individuals," says Adams.

Wellness and benefits technology "go hand in hand," says John Lamb, senior vice president and general manager at Benergy Interworks, A.D.A.M. Wellness must be incorporated with health benefits and technology to communicate positive lifestyle changes, he argues.

Going mobile Digital health coaching succeeds in shaping healthier employees

According to Don Sanford, managing director of communications services with Buck Consultants, the sale of handheld phones will outpace the sale of PCs and laptops this year.

Employers and benefits technology developers can jump on the bandwagon with applications designed to engage employees with their health and employer-sponsored benefits. Still, benefits technology has been slow to infiltrate the market.

"I think it's an indication that the market isn't quite ready to use the technology to describe benefits or about benefits to the extent we think it might; there's been hesitation," Sanford says. "When you think of 200,000 apps and none of them were designed with benefits information in mind, I think that's pretty remarkable."

Buck has developed Benefits Genie, in which consumers key in their personal and dependents' benefit information. They also can add their doctors' names, phone numbers and children's immunization records.

"Once you've captured all of your benefits information, let's say you go on a trip to the Bahamas and your mom's looking after your kids, you can network that information to your mom's phone. So, if something happened and she had to call a doctor, she could have it right in her hand. That's a remarkable tool that just didn't exist before," Sanford says.

The firm's next application will be an employer-based benefits app that employers would pay for, enabling them to send benefits information to employees' iPhones.

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