Coping with Open Enrollment

HR leaders can help employees make more thoughtful selections and improve health behaviors by crafting communications plans that target workers year-round. Efforts should include ways to personalize health trends for workers, increase trust in the organization and create a community-like atmosphere on the job.

I don't know what it's like for you, but I always seem to complete my benefits selections on the final day of open enrollment. It doesn't matter how far in advance I'm notified or whether I receive a detailed benefits package at home, the last 24 hours is when I pay attention.

And I don't seem to spend more than the ten minutes most people allocate to the process.

So, what's up with me and everyone else?

It's an overwhelming process, says Fran Melmed, a human resource communication expert and owner of context communication consulting in Philadelphia.

"Employers need to do a better job in helping employees select their benefits by offering narrower choices and better support tools," Melmed says. "You need to think enrollment and employees' lives.

"Help make the most of the time you have. Stop having massive enrollment meetings and tailor communications for niche audiences, such as families, singles and singles with children," she continues. "The problem is that employers are reticent to say, 'This is the right plan for you.' "

Short of helping to make our benefit decisions, what can HR leaders do to improve the annual enrollment process?

Melmed suggests the following framework:

* Understand that you aren't going to change workers' 10-minute time allotment for benefits selection. "Allow employees to get through the process quickly, efficiently and confidently."

* Make use of social media's advantages, such as conversation and peer-to-peer support, while maintaining traditional communication approaches. "Companies need to integrate e-mail, Web sites and technology within a broader communication design."

* Establish behaviorally related metrics. "You need to know if people enrolled in the programs you wanted them to select and if they used the programs."

* Build from the 10-minute enrollment commitment to a year-long communications process. "Employers shouldn't separate their open-enrollment communications from their wellness communications. One should build from the other."

Which leads to the challenge of promoting prevention programs -- and engaging employees and their dependents to participate.

Healthcare reform brings employers expanded options to reward employees who exhibit good health behaviors or are willing to improve. But, as HR executives, how do you effectively influence one of your employees' most personal attributes -- their health?

"One-hundred percent of everything in primary care is behavior," says Benjamin Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado-Denver School of Medicine who redesigns primary-care health systems.

"However, while physicians may [influence] their individual patients to take their medications, lose weight and quit smoking, most don't [understand] how to influence those behaviors in families, in communities or with employers," Miller says.

Employers, he says, can help to positively influence workers' health behaviors by using personalization, building trust, and establishing the company and its worksites as a community.

"Personalization is important in communication because we meet the people where they're at," Miller says. "The challenge is that we tend to meet the problem instead of the people."

What that means for an HR leader is that, while you may want to spearhead a companywide initiative to address a troubling diabetes trend, for example, each individual employee needs to believe it's an important issue for him or her.

And he or she must have the confidence required to make the associated behavior changes suggested by the employer.

Employees also have to trust you if they're going to allow you to influence their health.

"The single common denominator in redesigning any system is relationships ... and continuity in relationships leads to better outcomes," Miller says.

Why does continuity work? "The longer you know someone, the more you trust them," he says.

"The employer and key leadership have to show they care about their employees' health more than simply paying the health insurance bill."

Miller says one way researchers establish trust in a community when they need access to the residents' personal information is to establish a community advisory council. The council reflects the community's composition, represents their opinions and helps shape the research agenda.

Corporations could do the same, establishing an employee advisory council around health. Unions used to play that role to a degree, but union membership in the United States has dropped to about 12 percent nationwide -- and only about 7 percent of workers in private industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Companies need to be influential inside and outside their walls," Miller says. "If employers can establish both what is the most important thing for the outside community and establish themselves as their own community with a unique culture, employees will feel more connected to workplace initiatives."

So, it seems that effective employee-benefits communications is a mix of personalization of choices, establishment of trust and support from influential employees who represent your unique company community.

While that mix may not get procrastinating employees like me to enroll in benefits early, it may get us to more thoughtfully make benefits selections and increase participation in health-behavior programs throughout the year.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett.

Aug 2, 2010
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