While some employers are considering a complete revamp of their health plan offerings in light of the Affordable Care Act, some benefit decision-makers may get more mileage from their health programs by trying some nontraditional communication approaches.

Wellness incentive spending from corporate employers has jumped significantly, with a 15% increase in wellness incentive spending year-over-year. A survey from Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health finds employers — 95% of whom who offer some sort of health improvement program — spend an average of $594 per employee on wellness-based incentives.

But Robert Kennedy, health and welfare practice leader with Fidelity’s benefits consulting business, says that employers need to constantly engage employees, even as the wellness movement begins to show its longer-term benefits in America’s workplaces.

“[Employers need to] kind of personalize it and make sure people understand what they’re asking [participants] to do, if it fits into the broader health improvement program and how that health improvement program fits into your broader health care strategy,” he notes.

Kennedy says that key messaging — and not just during annual medical plan open enrollments — can help. These include efforts such as healthy activity challenges and wellness programs that keep people constantly connected.

The generic approach

“The ‘peanut butter’ approach really doesn’t work,” says Jill Havely, Towers Watson’s Americas practice leader for communication and change management. Havely refers to overly generic strategies that are inappropriately used by employers across all businesses and work channels. In this case, benefit communications should not use the same universal concepts that are found in other corporate messaging. Havely adds that employers need to categorize the impact of current benefits and future changes under the ACA when messaging employees.

“They need to be thinking about impact and value proposition through the messaging,” Havely explains.

While best practices are relative to each organization’s needs, Havely says that employers need to determine the severity of health plan changes when coordinating their messaging efforts.

“Depending on how extreme those changes are, encourage onsite and face-to-face or virtual meetings,” she says. “If there are minimal changes, traditional communication channels can work, so do updates to monthly, quarterly communications or regular employee communications.”

Traditional employee communications have not changed much, according to Prudential’s Eighth Annual Study of Employee Benefits: Today & Beyond, and the impact of these benefit communications has not waivered, either.

“The mix that they have been using to serve up employees hasn’t really changed much over the past eight years of Prudential’s study,” says Jean Wiskowski, chief marketing officer for Prudential’s group insurance business. “The group meeting, for example, plus emails and home mailing have remained almost constant.”

Personalization

So how can benefit professionals get ahead of the curve and fully promote useful messaging as it was intended? Wiskowski explains that it all comes down to personalization.

“From our perspective, doing something is better than doing nothing,” Wiskowski says. “So clearly, [they need to be] taking some course of action, some form of communication, doing multiple types of communications. More is better, based on employee preference here. Employees learn differently, so getting them at different points — both before, during and anytime after enrollment periods — is preferred.”

Holistic look

And there can be payoffs: Employers that look to enforce strong cultures of health among their workforce do see some immediate benefits. Approximately 75% of employees and covered dependents at companies with strong cultures of health report that they have gained control over their health, according to a study from Aon Hewitt, the National Business Group on Health and The Futures Company.

The third annual Consumer Health Mindset analysis finds that, in terms of happiness, 66% of employees in strong health cultures say they are “extremely or very happy,” versus the 32% happiness marker reported for those less health-conscious employers.

The study found that support from peers and leaders also speaks volumes when communicating ideas.

There has also been a big shift in communication channels. While email was supported last year, Aon Hewitt health engagement leader Joann Hall Swenson says that websites focused on health and wellness were recently voted as the top source of information by employees.

“I think what employees, and consumers in general, are asking is for employers to look at them more holistically,” says Swenson. “Instead of just looking at events like annual enrollment or their health plans in isolation and giving them information that just seems unrelated, [we need] to really guide them more. We see that consumers are asking for more personal guidance.” In the culture of health, she says, it’s crucial to have company leaders supporting the effort.

Swenson says employers should interpret all communications with a new mantra that looks to help out employees.

“What employers can do is take a fresh look at all the communication they provide to their employees, through the health plans and wellness vendors and all the resources that they have. And then [they need to] think about which of those resources are external websites and mobile apps, and put together a list of vetted and reputable apps and websites that people can go to,” Swenson says.

Continuity and the Cadillac tax

In 2018, the excise tax commonly called the “Cadillac tax” will be leveraged onto employers who surpass ACA levels. The excise tax is expected to tax employers 40% on the value of coverage exceeding $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families. But how can employers communicate this concern to employees? Towers Watson’s Haverly says this can serve as an educational opportunity for employers.

“It’s important to help people understand the education process, the key thing is it’s not one and done; sending out one communication is not enough to have people educated,” Havely explains. “Continuous education around this and how it relates to all access and benefits is really, really important, now and ongoing.”

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