Employees need time to make big benefits decisions. Most benefits managers know this; what might not be known is more communication methods are needed to allow for the best decision making.

"So many times benefits education is general, but the dynamic and employees’ interest level changes when it's specific to them," says Bill Dalicandro, vice president at Unum. "Allowing at least three weeks to review at least three types of education methods adds up to better benefits education."

The findings come at a time when industry research reveals that employers are recognizing the benefits education they provide their employees is insufficient.

The third annual study of more than 1,700 employed adults, conducted online in December 2010 following the benefits enrollment period, finds that an effective benefits education will help employees make informed choices.

"When you think about the amount of information that we sort through on a regular basis, three weeks gives people time to get information in their queue and review it with a spouse. In today's world it's hard to find time to think about important things. The window can be helpful," Dalicandro says. He adds that the different types of communication address learning styles and differing work environments. "We want to understand what the work environment lends itself to. It's never a one size fits all."

To better meet the various learning styles among employees, the results indicate offering at least three methods of communication is a critical part of the benefits education process. According to the study, 91% of employees that were asked to review benefits within the past year had accessed information made available to them.

Findings included:

  • 68% of employees who had access to personal statements utilized them to get information about their benefits.
  • 68% of employees accessed information on their employer's Intranet or other website sponsored by the employer when it was offered.
  • 68% of employees used printed information or brochures to learn more about their benefits when given the opportunity.

Other popular forms of education methods used by employees include email communications from employers, group and one-on-one meetings where benefits are presented and employees can ask questions, and online interactive tools.
Unfortunately, the study also reveals that employee access to printed materials and personal contact methods, such as group meetings to discuss benefits, remained significantly lower than 2008 levels.

"Whether it's your medical plan or 401(k), they have big implications for the following year and sometimes way off into the future. The ultimate in customization is the face to face meeting. It's important to let them focus on what they want to learn and what they need to understand," Dalicandro says.

The research shows that 97% of employees who had three-plus weeks to review their benefits education materials said it was enough time — but just 50% of respondents were given that much time.

Those who had three or more weeks to enroll were more likely to rate their benefits and their benefits education as excellent or very good, compared to those with less than three weeks to enroll.

Even if employers don't offer a particularly good benefits package, it pays off when they build an effective benefits education strategy. In fact, 85% of employees with an excellent/very good benefits education rated their benefits package as excellent or very good. And 80% of employees who rated their benefits education highly also rated the employer as an excellent/very good place to work. Dalicandro explains that for benefits managers who want to make a case to implement such strategies, the argument is simple.

"It's simple around the amount of dollars that are associated with the overall benefits program; the importance [rests in] having them understand the benefits so they're making conscious decisions," he says.

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