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Online and Beneficial

Benefit portals and websites now include a variety of online tools to help employees shape up.

Saturday, June 16, 2012
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HR departments are turning to online tools, social-media apps and new content to help employees lose weight, quit smoking, save money, plan for college or retirement, shop for a doctor or even find the best deal on a CAT scan.

In short, the Internet is crowded with a wide variety of tools that help people achieve personal goals and HR build a healthier workforce. In many cases, employees simply click on a link in their employee-benefits portal that seamlessly transports them to a vendor's website.

Other times, HR departments import vendor information or tools into their own portals, rebranding resources under the company's logo. Either way, employees are being given more opportunities than ever before to better manage their lives.

Consider Michelin North America. After signing on to its benefits portal, the company's 12,000 U.S.-based employees can link to external websites to access a plethora of tools and information, says Martin Storey, director of compensation and benefits at Michelin North America, based in Greenville, S.C.

He points to examples such as Vanguard's retirement calculators and financial engines that offer investment tips, a Weight Watchers' app that reveals the amount of calories and fat content in restaurant entrees, Health Fitness Corp.'s exercise programs, and United Healthcare's tool that helps employees find the best doctors or hospitals for just about any type of medical procedure.

"You have to meet [employees] where they are if you're serious about improving [their] health and getting them ready for retirement," says Storey, a point that underscores what many employers are now recognizing, that benefits packages should include financial education to improve employees' overall health and well-being. Although his portal is housed on the company's intranet, he adds, retirees and employees' spouses can access a portion of it via the Internet and a password.

But not everyone enjoys playing in the online environment. While the average age of Michelin's employees is 44, 20 percent are over the age of 55. Some are web-savvy; some are not, Storey says, adding that, despite the advantages of online tools, some still prefer personal interactions with HR.

For them, every time the portal transfers them to a vendor's website, they must learn a different, and sometimes difficult, navigation process. To help them, but really to help everyone, Michelin is trying to integrate all of its benefits resources in one space.

Still, because of its employee demographics, the company will continue offering opportunities to personally interact with HR.

"Michelin will never lose that one-on-one relationship," Storey says. "It's important to have people out in the facilities to help [employees], help them get started. Once they know there's somebody they can go to, someone they can trust, they [may be] more comfortable in giving [online tools] a try."

Michelin, like many organizations today, is contending with an underlying and persistent reality when it comes to web use and encouraging employee health, wealth and wisdom: Regardless of their popularity, online tools still need to prove their value.

"We're not doing this because it's sexy or the latest thing," Storey says, adding that healthcare isn't viewed as a fringe benefit, but as a business process that leads to productivity. "If [the tools] don't give us ROI, we're not going to use [them]."

Ongoing Effort

With so many tools on the market, the selection process can be overwhelming.

HR first needs to identify its strategic goals and top three challenges facing workers, then search for tools that best fit employees' needs, says Jennifer Benz, CEO at Benz Communications, an employee-benefits-communication firm in San Francisco. HR can talk with peers at conferences, read trade magazines, contact vendors or ask employees about helpful online tools, she adds.

Benz' favorite applications include Text4baby, which texts tips for a healthy pregnancy, as well as Limeaid, ShapeUp and Virgin HealthMiles, which offer health-and-wellness mobile apps. (See sidebar for more tools.)

Benz also builds websites for clients with social-media features such as Twitter, Facebook or blogs, all of which enable them to frequently update content. HR can offer bite-sized chunks of information on health, wellness or financial security -- such as diet tips or new financial tools.

"Usually, blogs are authored by someone in HR and employees can comment or ask questions through [them]," Benz says, adding that -- contrary to critics -- this approach doesn't create information overload for employees. "HR can [simply] say, 'Here are some apps to help you lose weight,' and an employee can say, 'I tried this app; it works great.'

 "It's really critical to make things easy to understand, easy to use and to communicate year-round in bite-sized chunks," she says, adding that social-media sites and portals need fresh information to maintain employee interest. "[Employees] won't get overwhelmed if you keep things simple and action-oriented instead of detailed and lengthy."

Some HR departments still don't get this. Some consider such sites more as infrastructure rather than a place to house valuable news, tools and information, says Michael Rudnick, global leader of HR portals at Towers Watson's Stamford, Conn., office.

"While content like benefit policies doesn't change on a regular basis, [people] are used to coming to a website that doesn't look the same as the last time they [saw] it," says Rudnick, adding that, if employees believe the information on a portal is stagnant, they may call HR for updated news, potentially jamming phone lines, which defeats one of the purposes of establishing a portal. "There needs to be a good balance between when you're upgrading, redoing or fixing a portal."

HR basically has three options for this process -- creating its own information and tools, directing employees to a third-party site, or importing vendor content and tools into its own portal.

Rudnick suggests the latter two options, mainly because the process of developing original health content can be "incredibly laborious." Besides, vendors frequently change their website content.

HR professionals can, he says, spend time reviewing the portal's log analysis. How often are links or tools used? Which ones are the most popular?

"...What [employees] tell you in surveys is not actually what they do," Rudnick says. "People vote with their mouse. It's a great way to evaluate how that particular app is doing and whether you need to promote it more, make it more visible or find out why more people aren't [using it]."

An extension of that idea is to use social media to rate benefits, processes or programs. He says employees can share or re-tweet their opinions just like people do on restaurant or travel websites.

Although social media can help promote a healthy workforce and make benefits more relevant, 70 percent of employers say they're still not using it, according to a 2011 MetLife survey, Study of Employee Benefit Trends. Some reasons include a belief that there's a lack of resources (37 percent), it's just not valuable for their company (33 percent), there's a lack of interest among employees (25 percent) or there are legal concerns (23 percent). Yet 74 percent acknowledge that "it provides an easy, convenient way for employees to obtain benefits information."

The report suggests that employers explore various aspects of social media to "build a benefits bridge to younger employees," considering 42 percent of Gen Yers and 38 percent of Gen Xers are interested in receiving benefits information through social networking, mobile devices and text messaging.

However, those numbers plunge to between 10 percent and 12 percent for baby boomers.

Still, the slow adoption of social media by employers hasn't stopped vendors from developing more social-media websites, tools or mobile apps, which are "overrunning the world because people are online, all the time, wherever they are," says Rudnick.

A good example is the Keas Health Challenge from keas.com, which won a 2011 HRE Top HR Product award. Employee groups can use that site to compete with each other in exercising or eating healthy.

Rudnick believes more employers will soon discover the value of social-media tools for benefits portals, especially since sharing personal information online -- even health-related -- has become a way of life. Although none of his clients offer an in-house version of Facebook or Twitter, their portals already include elements of social media by enabling employees to share information or express opinions anonymously.

"I don't see this shift changing course; it's too pervasive," he says, adding that, if employees choose to disclose personal health information online, especially through a third-party benefits administrator, HIPAA or privacy concerns become nonissues.

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Smart, Custom and Personal

To help promote physical health, emotional well-being and financial health to its workforce, Aetna's benefits portal combines a little bit of everything, ranging from imported content to in-house videos, says Deborah Koltenuk, head of benefits at Aetna in Hartford, Conn.

"Our portal is really designed to support all [aspects of health] and interrelationships," she says, adding that Aetna HR's overall strategy is to design an integrated approach to health, finance and wellness. "Financial stress has major health implications, so we do a lot to address that."

On Jan. 1, Aetna's HR department launched an updated portal that includes a web chat so employees can ask benefits questions online. They can also watch short videos on a variety of topics such as yoga stretches or cooking demonstrations, or listen to audiocasts that focus on financial education, such as Financial Finesse's Your Money Minute.

Employees can click on external links for many different resources, such as ING's financial-planning tools, associations such as the American Heart Association, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and MapMyRUN.com.

In the future, Koltenuk plans on adding more links to vendors that offer discounts to Aetna's employees and to community websites promoting local activities that get people off the couch or promote family time.

Meanwhile, employees can access another Aetna tool through the portal -- Aetna Navigator -- to find doctors and hospitals, and to check coverage, claims and costs for procedures or drugs. However, with Aetna's mobile app, employees can also access their personal-health record.

Aetna's use of social-media tools, however, is still up for debate. Anytime an employee's personal-health information is shared with others online, a red flag goes up for the company. Koltenuk says Aetna is especially concerned about privacy issues, particularly in the workplace.

"Five years from now, I would hope this would all be accessible via mobile [apps] ... engaging employees, retirees and their families," says Koltenuk. "[We're] looking for family engagement because from a health perspective, it's crucial."

So are customized tools. With regard to portals, one size does not fit all, adds Nate Randall, benefits manager at Tesla Motors in Palo Alto, Calif.

"Benefits communication in the past has been, 'Let's tell everybody everything we have to offer,' " says Randall, adding that Tesla's benefits portal will go live this fall. "Most companies of a decent size have maybe 50 different programs that exist, but only four of those apply to each given person. [We] try not to waste brain space. We want benefits and HR to be seen as something that enhances [their] life, not wastes [their] time."

In the future, he hopes benefits portals become smarter by focusing on an individual's wants or needs. Until then, Tesla's portal will offer tools related to health, wellness and retirement. Besides viewing their medical plans and costs, the company's 1,700 employees will be able to access tools to help them find doctors or compare costs of common medical tests or financial services.

"There's some great stuff out there," says Randall, referring to tools found on healthcare websites. "Some scrape the claims data, summarize it in a fashion that regular people can understand. They also audit what the health plan is charging them and catch errors, potentially saving [employees] money. It filters all this confusion and makes it super simple to understand their [medical] benefits."

Under all circumstances, he says, Tesla's HR will control the message. While content will not be imported from other websites, HR will leverage information or tools developed by its partners, government agencies or public institutions and brand it Tesla.

Likewise, the number of employees accessing content or tools in the portal will also be tracked on a monthly basis by vendors to see what's popular and what's not.

Even with a robust portal, he says, HR will never lose sight of the importance of establishing personal connections with employees.

"A lot of HR departments are searching for the next tool or thing that makes their job more automated, more sexy," Randall says. "Everybody needs to recognize that what it really takes to get this job done is on the ground, in person, a handshake, the old-school HR style. We feel very strongly that, while the tools help and can supplement that relationship, we need to have that personal relationship with all of our employees to have success."

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