What do Your Employees Really Know About Their Benefits?

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Aug 2, 2010

In all too many companies, Kimmie the junior HR associate leads a conference room full of half-asleep employees through a positively delightful Power Point presentation outlining the benefit plan options for the coming year.

She hands out brochures and enrollment documents, and sends the employees off to wade through co-insurance charts, legalese disclaimers, and provider directories. Hoping to avoid the hassle involved in switching plans, most employees just pick a plan and stick to it, whether it’s right for them or not.

When it comes to health care benefits, employees can be pretty clueless. It’s not their fault, though — there’s just a lack of education about options, and employee benefits aren’t the easiest thing to understand in the first place.

But, Kimmie’s Power Points are great! How bad could this problem be?

Two-thirds of employees don’t know about their health benefits. Two out of three. Sure, they know they have benefits, but they don’t know the intricacies of those benefits and how to fully leverage their coverage.

A new study by Colonial Life found that fewer than 20 percent of employees actually understand their benefits. If that isn’t bad enough, come open enrollment, 80 percent of people stick with the same plan options from the year before even though most of them indicate they’re unsatisfied with their plan.

Why should anyone care?

There’s really only one teensy, tiny reason this matters: BILLIONS AND BILLIONS OF DOLLARS.

Employers spend a lot of money to provide their employees with quality health care options, and for good reason: a strong benefits package can be a big factor in employee satisfaction. In fact, the Society of Human Resource Management found that benefits are the second-most important factor in job satisfaction and employee retention. Why go through the time and expense of recruiting, hiring, and training new employees when better benefits communication can help you retain the talented employees you already have?

From the employee’s standpoint, health care is a serious purchase decision, for themselves, and for their families. Everyone wants to make a smart decision, and no one wants to overpay or miss out on a better plan because they didn’t understand their options.

When employees make the wrong plan selection, it ends up costing both employees and employers a decent amount of money. And by the way, ongoing health care reform is likely to increase both costs and complexity, meaning effective benefits communication will only become more important.

How can you help employees select the right plan?

When it comes to health care options, employees are asking themselves questions like these:

  • What’s right for me?
  • How do I weigh all these different options against each other?
  • What if I make the wrong choice?
  • Is the company is forcing a plan on me that I don’t actually need?
  • How stressful is this decision-making process going to be?
  • Can someone give me an explanation of what I’m actually getting?
  • How do I know I’m not spending too much for a plan I don’t really need?

As the complexity of health care offerings grows, you’ll want to keep the process simple and answer the questions listed above. People prefer being spoken to in language they can understand. They want to be engaged (maybe even throw in a little humor), and they don’t want to sit through an hour-long Power Point presentation. They want benefits communication that is personalized to fit their individual needs.

  1. I can’t stress it enough: keep it simple and speak plainly. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of deductibles, co-pays, out of pocket and co-insurance costs; but realize your audience (who is probably not as familiar with health care terms as you are), may not know what those things mean — let alone what they mean for them. HMO/PPO, in-network/out-of-network; what most employees are thinking is: will this plan give me the coverage I need? If you eliminate the jargon, you can eliminate a lot of anxiety and confusion.

    Explain benefits in a clear and concise manner: “The company offers insurance options for you: A or B. You can buy extra if you want, to cover your family. Plan A gives you X, Y, Z coverage and will cost you this much.” Try reading your drafts of written decision support materials out loud. If you sound like an underwriter, there’s a great chance most employees won’t be able to track along.

  2. The other important thing to recognize is that every person is different, so their insurance needs are different. Most companies have a range of employees — from 22-year-old Joe who isn’t worried about his health, much less his insurance, to Nancy in admin who’s having another baby, to Richard in accounting who’s in to see his doctor every week or so. How can one brochure meet the educational needs of all the different people in a company? It can’t. You’re better off individualizing benefit plan recommendations to each participant, based on what they tell you (imagine… actually letting people tell you what their needs are).
  3. On top of explaining what each plan includes, explain how it will work for each individual. Be engaging, and ask questions along the way. Interact with the employee. Maybe crack a joke or two. For one thing, it’s much more enjoyable than going through a stack of jargon-filled paperwork. And, more importantly, you’re able to help people understand the choices that matter to them — so they can make more informed decisions.

What’s the bottom line? 

With the pace of business today, individual benefits counseling can be a tall order for any company. Luckily, there are powerful tools now available that can help any organization offer a personalized experience to all their employees.

Individualized recommendations will keep people engaged and happy. They’ll feel like they work for a company that cares about them. And everyone likes it when you get to the point.

So, here it is: your employees don’t understand their benefits because you haven’t explained them in language they can understand. But, you can improve the situation, if you communicate in a simple way, explain, ask questions, and guide employees through the process.

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