How employers can step up benefits communications efforts
I remember an old advertising line from a discount retailer that said, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” The discounter was promoting the idea that customers who understand the true cost and value of products are loyal and feel good about their purchase. The retailer used education to tear down the wall of misunderstanding and confusion that leads to buyer’s remorse.
Is there a wall between you and your workforce when it comes to your health and welfare benefits? Do they know the true cost and value of their benefits? Do they understand how their medical plan works? Do they comprehend terms like copay, co-insurance and deductible? Do they grasp the value of guaranteed issue for life insurance? Are they aware of the necessity of protections provided by disability insurance? Do they know how your 401(k) match works and why, at any age, it’s important to save for retirement? Do spouses make informed benefit and healthcare decisions?
No matter how good a job employers think they do when educating employees about their health and financial benefits, it usually isn’t enough. First, you’ve got to get their attention and keep it long enough for them to assimilate information, and the information is boring and often complicated. Misunderstanding, confusion and apathy all play a factor in why employees don’t understand or don’t seem to care about your efforts to provide them with access to healthcare and financial protection. Removing barriers can feel like an uphill climb in the middle of a blizzard, yet, it’s necessary.
HR and benefits departments spend an inordinate amount of time and resources designing health and welfare programs for employees. Benefit consultants have a front row seat to this effort. The energy and resources that are put into a renewal and a long-term benefits strategy can sap the attention from an equally important program component: creating and communicating a vibrant dialogue that educates employees about their plans.
How does a well-intentioned HR professional overcome employee misunderstanding, apathy and confusion over benefits? As President Ronald Reagan once said, “Tear down this wall!”
OK, that’s a little dramatic. But let’s examine how to overcome miscommunication and missed communications. Data plays a role. Reviewing claims, understanding workplace demographics, and analyzing utilization patterns are key in understanding if the messages you’re sending are resonating. Surveys and focus groups are good tools to uncover communication hits and misses.
A comprehensive employee education and communication campaign is a must. The campaign should be targeted and incorporate a variety of touchpoints. Think beyond the printed benefit guidebook to things like online access to summaries, on-demand webinars and social media. And don’t think that one message delivered prior to or during open enrollment is enough. Communications must continue —albeit in small snippets — over the course of the plan year.
Benefit communications require feedback from employees and a diligent review of key indicators. One way to judge the effectiveness is whether or not you see a long line of employees in the HR office. Or if your broker provides employee advocacy, you might learn that service representatives are receiving a high volume of calls on one or two topics. Or perhaps you see a spike in ER claims. Need to make an adjustment? A mid-course correction is not an admission of failure, but a necessary way to ensure that communications are hitting the target.
Technology is a great way to distribute and reinforce key messaging. Tailoring a benefits administration platform to communicate with employees as they are making their elections will help eliminate surprises down the road. It also gives you a channel to communicate with spouses, who can heavily influence the plans that employees end up choosing.
An older tool that is still relevant is the total compensation statement. These customized statements educate employees on the entire value of their benefits and salary. Benefits can comprise 30% to 40% of total compensation, therefore employers should willingly promote what they are paying for. If traditional total compensation statements aren’t a viable option due to cost or other factors, there are employee benefits administration platforms that have the ability to illustrate employer contributions.
In my line of work, I know how common it is for employees to be confused about benefits. They don’t enroll in the right plans. They use them improperly. They don’t understand the complete picture of what is offered and the value. Confusion builds a wall, but communications can tear it down.
Thinking back to the retailer who used education to woo and soothe his customers, consider that your benefits plan and knowledgeable employees can be your best recruitment and retention tool. An educated, engaged employee is your best employee.