Low Grades for Benefits Education

With a new survey finding only a third of employees happy with the level of benefits education provided by their employers, experts offer ways HR leaders can better inform their workforces about making the best benefits choices for their needs.

By William Atkinson

A recent survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of insurance provider Unum finds only 33 percent of employees asked to review benefits in 2013 rated the benefits education they received as "excellent" or "very good," a 37-percent drop from the year before and a reversal of the upward trend in ratings since 2009.

In addition, the survey finds that 27 percent rated their benefits education as "fair" or "poor" in 2013.

"Ensuring that employees understand their benefits isn't easy," says Bill Dalicandro, vice president of Unum's consumer solutions group in Chattanooga, Tenn. "It takes time, effort and resources that most HR teams are stretched to support. However, there is a real opportunity for HR teams to stand out and improve employee morale by helping employees understand their benefits."

In fact, according to the Unum survey, high-quality benefits education translates into positive feelings toward employers. The survey found that 79 percent of workers who reviewed benefits in the past year and rated their experience as "excellent" or "very good" also rated their employers as "excellent" or "very good." Only 30 percent of employees who rated their experience as "fair" or "poor" rated their employers as "excellent" or "very good."

While most employers care how well they provide benefits education, many of them aren't sure how to go about providing the best service in this area, but Dalicandro offers some recommendations.

"With more benefits enrollment moving online," he says, "I see some employers relying solely on online benefit tools for employee education.

"Online tools are convenient and a valuable addition to the benefits-education plan," he says. "At the end of the day, though, employees need someone they can contact during enrollment to respond to their benefits questions, whether it is someone in HR, a benefits broker or an insurance-carrier representative."

Unum recommends what it calls a "3x3" strategy for strong benefits education, in which companies begin communicating with employees three weeks before enrollment, so they have enough time to review the current benefits and options, and use at least three different tools to communicate to employees.

New York-based Towers Watson also sees the importance of multiple channels when communicating benefits information to employees, says Jill Havely, the consultancy's Americas practice leader for communication and change management.

The challenge, she says, is not a lack of desire by employers to educate employees.

"Rather," she says, "we are in a period of time when organizations are trying to determine the right balance of channels for how information gets delivered."

For example, while most younger workers may prefer to receive all or most of their information via technology, many older employees aren't as comfortable with these channels.

"The first step is to consider the various ways you can package benefits information," says Havely. "This is not referring to the channels of delivery, but the message itself. The goal is to be able to integrate your messages such that you can provide a holistic story."

Then, she says, employers need to identify the different audiences they are trying to reach, and what factors are involved with those different demographics, such as access to and use of technology, any biases they may initially have related to benefits and so on.

Finally, she advises employers to engage in target marketing.

"That is, plan the communication such that the messages, channels and delivery mechanisms are appropriate for each type of audience, so that you will be sure to get their attention," she says.

But sometimes employers have a traditional - or outdated -- view of benefits education, which involves sending out large volumes of information to employees and assuming that they will read it all and automatically become educated, says Joann Hall Swenson, health-engagement-best-practice leader for Chicago-based consultancy Aon Hewitt.

"While a process like this might have worked 20 years ago," she says, "it never worked well, and it works even less well these days.

"In today's 'sound-bite' society, people are looking for information in more bite-sized pieces," says Swenson.

So, she says, providing information on benefits education is less about volume, and more about making sure employees have the information they need at their fingertips so it's easy for them to find and navigate at their convenience.

"In other words, employees don't necessarily want to be educated," says Swenson. "Rather, they want to have easy access to information when they want it."

For employers struggling to get their benefits messages out to their workforces, Swenson recommends providing information on three levels.

"First, what is the 'sound bite' they want? Second, what is the paragraph? This is a few sentences that describe what they want. Third, where is the detail?"

For example, if an employee is looking for a health plan, the first question usually is: Is this a good plan for me? The sound bite is then "It might be."

The paragraph relates to the potential benefits of the plan, such as tax advantages or a lower paycheck contribution. "Then, if the employee is serious about considering it, he or she needs access to the details, which should be available on a website or a print piece," says Swenson. "However, you don't want to start out by 'throwing the book' at them."

So what options are available to HR leaders to use in order to provide the necessary information to employees on these different levels?

A 2014 survey-based report published by Aon Hewitt, titled The Consumer Health Mindset, found employees like to receive information in a variety of ways, including websites, emails, text messages, "snail mail" to a home address, workplace meetings, webinars and social media.

And if your HR organization is interested in restructuring the way it provides benefits information to employees, Swenson recommends starting with an audit.

"This doesn't need to take a lot of time," she says. "Assess your current communication channels. What works and does not work about them?" In some cases, it may be possible to simply retrofit what you have, rather than starting from scratch. Look at what is missing. Then ask: What are some other channels we might be able to use to add some "buzz" or give people the "human touch"?

Finally, look at your benefit plan a whole year at a time, instead of focusing on it only during annual enrollment, which is usually the fourth quarter.

"Look for ways to communicate with employees each quarter," says Swenson.

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Sep 24, 2014
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