Benefits Column

An Open Letter to Your Employees

Here's what people in your organization need to know to make the right employee-benefits choices.

Monday, September 19, 2016
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I've had the privilege to write Human Resource Executive®'s benefits column for almost seven years. During that time, I've learned that when I share personal stories with readers, I'm able to touch them in a different way and often begin an ongoing conversation with them. My most recent column concerning my ongoing recovery from an accident a year ago spurred more interchanges than prior posts about life moments such as my mother's death or my experience as a melanoma survivor. 

Much has been written about the lost art of conversation. And when I reflect upon how benefits communication have evolved over the last several decades, conversations with employees is not at the top of that evolution chart.

I still remember the proud recitation of benefits I received from my hiring manager when I started my first job in a healthcare system. The longest part of the explanation was the review of the medical center's new paid-time-off and extended-leave programs.

But, soon after my entrance into the world of work, the explosion of healthcare costs (coupled with the hoped-for promise of wellness programs in mitigating those costs) led many businesses to shift some of the onus -- and costs -- to workers.

I recall receiving detailed communication packages at home over the ensuing years that explained the flexibility I would gain from using the cafeteria program in choosing benefits that were right for me. Never once, however, did someone offer to converse with me about how I should think about employee benefits within the context of my life.

Over time, benefits administrators and employee-benefits fairs came into being, along with slick online programs that walked me through the process of building a profile. Sure, I'd get some guidance but, more than anything else, I relied on conversations with my parents about how to get the most return on my growing investment in employee perks.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not being critical of HR and benefits leaders. Working on the other side of the benefits equation gives me deep insight into the legal and cultural ramifications of employee-benefits offerings. You cannot often say what you'd really like to say to employees about how to select their benefits. But I can.

So what follows is an open letter from me to your employees about how I think about employee benefits. Maybe it will help you re-evaluate your approach to these benefits -- or even start an ongoing conversation on the subject.

Dear Trusted Employee,

You don't know me, but I'm someone people have come to trust when they want to have a conversation about employee benefits. I stand to neither gain nor lose anything based upon the choices you will make during your benefits-enrollment period. Except for this: Based upon my life experiences, I'd like to see you make the best choices you can.

It's challenging for your employer to provide you with the types of suggestions I'm going to make. This is largely based upon the fact that your HR leaders can't give you direct advice.

There is one key assessment to make when choosing your benefits, and that is understanding risk. Since many of us recently enjoyed watching the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio, I'll sprinkle in some athletic references to give you a familiar context.

Whether you realize it or not, the benefits you choose, and how much coverage you select, is a form of assessing risk. Olympic athletes generally "sneer at risk." They push themselves to the edge of what their bodies can do and return every day to do it again and again -- even after experiencing major injuries. They, their significant others or their parents also go to considerable expense to make certain they receive the best training, medical care and rehabilitation available.

I spent the first 10 years of my career training elite athletes as well as the general public. The rest of my career has revolved around how to get people the best quality healthcare -- both to treat and prevent injuries, illnesses, accidents, temporary and permanent disabilities, and more minor health conditions such as pregnancies, bad backs and torn-up knees. As a result, I've developed a contact list of medical specialists who make a difference in helping people recover in a way that, sometimes, makes a life-altering difference.  

Here's one of the things that's been especially frustrating to me over the last few years. On occasion, I'll receive a phone call from a friend or acquaintance seeking a referral to a physician or healthcare provider -- and while I'll know someone who could help them, often that person can't see that individual because they selected a health plan that limits their provider and medical-center choices. At the time, it seemed like a good call. Limited network -- and high-deductible -- plans are more affordable.

I'd suggest that the first question you need to answer when assessing your health plan's benefit selection is: If you or your loved ones needed to see the best healthcare provider, would you want that choice available to you? There is no shame in saying: "No." You might have to travel to see this person or go to that a center of excellence, and it's simply something you know you couldn't or wouldn't do. Understand that part of yourself now, before you select your health plan.

The other thing that worries me when people are making their benefits choices is they don't factor in whether they can afford to be out of work for a period of time. The reason? It comes down again to how we assess our risks. Most of us don't think anything will happen to us, so we don't worry that we won't be able to work for a period of time. Or, we believe we'll have enough vacation time to cover an unpaid absence. Or we think our parents or friends will loan us money.

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Let me give you a snippet from my own life: During my working years, I've had two mountain-biking accidents that placed me on the disabled list, plus two concussions, two stress fractures, two broken toes, three episodes of back pain and a torn medial collateral ligament. You may call me unlucky; I will tell you I live life off the sidelines. And so do most of you -- whether you realize it or not.

So, first, make certain you understand your employer's paid-time-off or vacation/sick time policies. This will give you good information about how vulnerable you might be financially if you leave work to have a child, or to repair your bunions, or take care of a sprained back, knee or shoulder -- never mind if something more complicated happens.

My recommendation to you is to take advantage of your employer's short- and/or long-term disability insurance policies. They are inexpensive and cost-effective ways to make certain you can afford to be out of work (and help you pay for associated costs such as money toward your high-deductible, co-pay or co-insurance).

Once you've consciously checked the boxes on the two things people who work tell me are most important to them -- their health and their income -- take a serious look at other benefits associated with an income stream such as your retirement plan. Make certain you know if, and when, you are eligible to receive retirement income from your employer, and how you can contribute the most money possible toward retirement programs such as 401(k) and 403(b) programs. Just as none of us think we'll ever become ill or injured, we also think retirement is a far-away concept. Make certain to at least make a start with contributions.

What about the rest of your employee-benefits options? Trust me, there are some wonderful benefits out there. If you have children, dental and vision insurance for them may be high on your priority list. But, before making such selections, make certain you understand the benefits and limitations to these policies. You may find there is an annual or a lifetime cap on those benefits that make them unattractive.

The annual bottom line for me? I consciously make certain I have the best help available to me through my benefits selections if something were to happen to my health or my income. And then I make sure I can retire from this part of my working life at a point of my choosing. I wish you the same.

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 and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.


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