5 Tips for Closing Benefits Communication Gaps
As employee benefits open enrollment season looms, HR professionals will be spending a lot of time and resources to create and send messages to employees about benefits plans. Yet, many of these efforts fall flat.
A new study by LegalShield, a platform for legal, identity and reputation management services in North America, found that a majority of employees (81 percent) would welcome more information about their company-sponsored benefits throughout the year. However, the study also found that 47 percent of those surveyed didn’t know enough about each voluntary benefit to make an informed enrollment decision.
Why are employees not getting the message, and what should HR be doing differently?
The Employee Benefits Communication Landscape
Most employees are aware—at least generally—of their medical, dental, life insurance and disability benefits, said David MacLean, vice president of strategic growth at LegalShield.
But “once you start to get into the realm of some of the other voluntary products like critical illness, accident, group legal plans, group identity theft plans, pet insurance, it becomes a little bit more of an unknown,” he said.
Too often, the result of that lack of awareness and understanding means that they’re “flying blind” during open enrollment, he said.
There’s a disconnect between what employees know about benefits and what HR and the organization think employees know, MacLean said.
“Many employees don’t know what voluntary benefits are offered and don’t feel well-informed to make a decision,” he said. HR, on the other hand, because they’re often communicating about several different benefits—sometimes as many as 20 or 25—feels that they’re communicating a lot.
They’re often not communicating throughout the year, though.
“To employees, it all converges in that 10 to 14 days that is open enrollment, and they’re bombarded,” MacLean said. Plus, most employees actually spend very little time thinking about their benefits even during open enrollment, he added. They just “kind of click through” the various options.
The Problem With Open Enrollment Communication
Most often, companies focus the bulk of their benefits-related communication during open enrollment season. That can be problematic.
“It may not be a convenient time for [employees] to think about it. They may be jammed up with personal issues or issues at work,” MacLean suggested.
The big “aha” he drew from the research is that “open enrollment is an excellent time for employees to codify their elections, but it’s not a good time for employees to really understand what benefits are appropriate for them and which aren’t and to make informed decisions.” There’s just too much coming at them in a short timeframe, he said.
The key takeaway for the disconnect that this research suggests—employees, en masse, say they want more benefits communication and HR thinks they’re already communicating a lot—is that yes, they want more education, but “I think they want it in digestible and relatable ways,” MacLean said.
Megan Yost is senior vice president and engagement strategist in the communications practice of Segal, an HR and employee benefits consulting firm with locations in the U.S. and Canada. A common employer mistake, she said, is trying to cram “too much information in at once. If you think about it from the employee perspective, if you give them too much information at once, it just frustrates, confuses and intimidates them—therefore, they don’t do anything, or they just stick with what they’ve done before.”
MacLean and others offered some specific tips to help close communication gaps around benefits offerings.
Tips for Closing Benefits Communication Gaps
1. USE DIFFERENT MESSAGING AND CHANNELS FOR DIFFERENT COHORTS.
Benefits communication shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. A new, recently graduated, 22-year-old single employee has different benefits needs and interests than a married employee who is 62, nearing retirement and dealing with significant health concerns.
“Zero in on the messaging that’s likely to be more relevant, and flip the script,” MacLean suggested. “Get into specific generational messaging that is relatable and delivered in bite-sized pieces.”
Matt Wolf is senior vice president of business development for Greenlight, a financial technology company based in Atlanta. He said that in a recent Greenlight survey, “we found that working parents, in particular, are seeking better family-friendly benefits that can help support their financial wellness.”
In fact, he said, “98 percent of working parents said employee benefits that impact their family’s well-being are important.”
Wolf added that 81 percent of respondents also said the state of the economy has increased their financial stress and anxiety. Respondents “ranked financial education as one of the top three most important additional employee benefits, alongside mental health and professional development,” he said.
In addition to sharing different information based on employee needs, organizations should also use different channels, said Reyna Herrera, benefits manager with Servicon, an environmental, custodial and maintenance services provider based in Culver City, Calif. “No one method works for all, so providing information in a variety of ways is important,” she said.
She recommended the use of all available technology—from text, email and snail mail to live presentations with reinforcements through reminders from direct managers. When you have a diverse workforce, Herrera said, “you have some individuals that rely on text and social media and others that rely more on live explanations or traditional regular mail to receive and review materials. Add to that different cultures, language and other barriers, and that adds another layer to the communication challenge.”
Not only do we all learn and retain information in different ways, said Herrera, but “we have a better opportunity to retain information by hearing it frequently.”
2. USE THE ENTIRE CALENDAR YEAR TO EDUCATE PEOPLE IN VERY SMALL, SPECIFIC WAYS.
What’s in the news can be good fodder for messaging, MacLean said. For instance, he noted, student loan repayment is now making headlines. Employees may be wondering: “What’s going on there? What are the legal implications if I don’t resume my repayment? What exactly is the Supreme Court deciding on this issue?”
This doesn’t require a “great big legal transcript,” he said, “just plain language that tackles one issue at a time.”
There are plenty of benefits-related issues being covered in the news that can serve as springboards for your own communication—such as immigration policies, rising benefits costs, alternative care options and more.
This communication should be nonpartisan and not a product pitch, MacLean said. And, importantly, it should take place year-round. Continual reinforcement of relevant messages means that when open enrollment comes around, if employees “waive or elect coverage, they’re doing so on an informed basis, not just shooting from the hip.”
3. BE ATTUNED TO AND COMMUNICATE WITH EMPLOYEES DURING MAJOR LIFE EVENTS.
The birth of a child. A marriage or divorce. The death of a spouse. There are a number of significant life events that can impact an employee’s need for and interest in specific benefits options. These life events are a good opportunity to reinforce information and education.
This content doesn’t have to be employer-created. Chris Lee, vice president of the communication consulting practice at Gallagher, suggested that employers look for additional sources of information. Besides support from government sources and vendors, Lee noted that, “with the advent of AI tools, it’s never been easier to create original articles within a matter of minutes.”
Lee said that “benefits communications is often treated in a transactional and commoditized manner, and there’s a missed opportunity to create strong positioning for the value of these programs in people’s lives.” She also recommends thinking beyond the specific benefits offered to take a more holistic approach in communication.
“Instead of leading with what benefits are offered and the level of coverage, organizations should consider a more editorial perspective and create consumer-grade content that people actually want to consume and read,” Lee suggested. “Articles about mindfulness, tips for stretching, the top three mistakes that people make when trying to save and so on.” Doing this, she said, “can provide great real-word context for the benefits that employees have available to them and why they are important.”
Talking more about health and well-being, rather than just listing benefits and coverage amounts, can be a much better way to engage and educate employees.
4. CONSIDER THE ROLE THAT EMPLOYEE RESOURCE GROUPS (ERGS) MIGHT PLAY.
Employees themselves can play a role in helping to share information about benefits in relevant ways.
MacLean suggested that ERGs can be a very effective communication tool. While they may not have a direct tie to employee benefits, many focus on issues and subjects that are very relevant to the benefits packages being offered—for instance, a group for new parents or a group for disabled employees with disabilities.
5. PAY ATTENTION TO TIMING, (EMPLOYEE) COSTS AND DECISION SUPPORT TOOLS.
Yost said that HR and benefits leaders should strive to provide information far enough in advance of open enrollment to give employees time to digest and understand it, but not so far in advance that they can’t actually do anything with the information.
Yost also pointed out that a top-of-mind concern and consideration for employees is cost—what will the actual cost be to them for whatever options they’re considering? “Be really transparent about the monthly cost of different health plan options,” she said, “and, also, where they could save money through a dependent care FSA [flexible savings account] or an HSA [health savings account], for example.”
Decision support tools provided by benefits vendors can be very helpful here, Yost said.
“If you can provide a checklist or decision support tool where [employees] can weigh options and input their own information, that’s going to make it much more meaningful to the employee and really help them feel more confident about the decisions that they make,” she said.
Making Benefits Communication a Process, Not an Event
Open enrollment season is a time, not the time, to communicate about benefits, Yost said. “I would tell HR teams to think about it like learning a new sport or hobby—you can’t pick up all the tips and techniques in one setting. It takes time to build that familiarity and understanding over time,” she said.
Ultimately, Herrera said, there’s only so much communication and reinforcement that employers can do.
“With all the material and technology that’s been available and used, to still have this gap indicates that employers need to go above and beyond to foster an environment of trust,” she said. “That is relationship building that goes beyond communication, although communication is an essential piece of the work.”
The original article appeared in SHRM on July 10, 2023. Link to article.