Commentary: Voluntary benefits have increased in popularity as health care costs have risen and employers seek out ways to provide employee benefits without breaking the bank. And for good reason – voluntary benefits can be a very smart way to supplement core health coverage and enable employees to customize the insurance they buy for their particular situation.

However, if done poorly, the introduction of voluntary benefits can lead to a frustrated workforce that doesn’t have the right insurance. Done well, a voluntary program can invigorate the culture and help to provide a feeling of security. This reality makes it critically important for employers to provide as much guidance as possible to employees leading up to open enrollment. 

Success depends largely on how voluntary benefits are framed for the employee; some will see the glass as half empty and be put off by the fact that they now have more responsibility on their shoulders when it comes to selecting insurance. And considering the complexity of insurance, this is a very reasonable response. After all, adding more benefit choices is a change and change can be intimidating. Delving in to the world of insurance can be perplexing for employees, leading to concerns about choosing the right coverage and having to live with the consequences of their selections.

Also see: Education could boost disability insurance take-up

Employers can derail confusion by surveying their employees about voluntary products and educating them well before new options are rolled out to the workforce. Employees who become part of the decision-making process are more likely to welcome the introduction of voluntary benefits as a chance to customize their coverage to fit their needs. A survey may uncover the desire to add certain coverages, such as hospital confinement/medical bridge, critical illness, long-term care, identify theft and additional life, and short- and long-term disability beyond what may be provided by the employer. 

The next course of action is a robust open enrollment process that educates employees. The key is to deliver product information in consumable portions. A fire hose of benefits information is not going to help the employee, and it’s probably going to be a waste of time for the employer – a lot of effort for little gain.

However, there are tried and true communication techniques that can help to make open enrollment with voluntary benefits a smooth process. It begins with branding voluntary products as new, customizable options for employees. Once they understand and begin to wrap their head around the options, they’ll often get excited about the possibilities. From there, it’s important to design a communications plan that reaches out to employees early and often. Starting a “drip campaign” early and creating a continuing flow of information can help a voluntary program to take hold.

Admittedly, that sounds like a lot of work.  But here’s some good news.

As voluntary benefits have increased in popularity, carriers have started to help their customers roll out new programs. To a certain extent, they’re looking to differentiate their offering from the rest of this increasingly competitive marketplace. However, for employers this has led to a growing number of options to help them sell voluntary benefits, including technology platforms, wellness incentives and commissions. In other words, tools that can help employees. These enhanced enrollment capabilities offered by carriers can help employers to hold their employees’ hands through the education process and into open enrollment.

Also see: New voluntary products address cash-flow issues

As they ask employees to consider a new way of doing things, it’s important for employers to embrace new communications strategies ahead of open enrollment. Communicating new benefits options in the same old way runs the risk of leaving employees dissatisfied and unsure of how to proceed. But communications approaches can highlight the opportunity for employees, help to gain their acceptance, and be beneficial for the entire organization.

It’s important to provide multiple channels of choice to meet the needs of the entire workforce. Benefits administration technology can be a valuable tool for this purpose. Technology provides participants with plan information they need in a format they can read and absorb at their own pace. Many benefits administration websites create a personal, interactive experience to help increase employee engagement and comprehension of information. Additional communication channels, such as voicemail, email blasts and text messaging, are effective tools to communicate enrollment information for both the core plan and voluntary options.

Also see: Employees set sight on vision insurance

If your organization decides that providing voluntary benefits is the right fit for your employee population, it’s important to present the program in a way that will help it to succeed. Using an integrated open enrollment strategy that focuses heavily on employee-centric communications is often the best way to ensure that success.

Reed VanOrsdel is a benefits consultant for Corporate Synergies’ regional office in Bethesda, Maryland, and an expert in group employee benefits and voluntary insurance products. He also has a background in government contract consulting.  

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