Special Focus-Communicating the Benefits-September 2011

Special Focus-Communicating the Benefits-September 2011

Benefit managers talk shop—what works and what doesn’t—about delivering employee benefits information.

Benefit communications have come a long way from the two-inch-thick tome explaining health plan options and 401(k) choices. “[Employees] want to be able to consume the information the way they want to, when they want to, in a form that they want,” says Jeff Fritz, executive chairman of Storyworks Media, a Minneapolis company that produces “employee engagement” videos. For example, some people like to get e-mails periodically and some want to see video testimonials about what their peers are choosing when it comes to benefits. “Nobody wants to page through the booklet,” he says. 

Benefit and human resources managers must get this all-important information into the hands (and heads) of employees. But MetLife’s “Ninth Annual Study of Employee Benefits Trends,” released in March found that 55 percent of surveyed employees said they did not find their benefits materials clear or comprehensive. Ouch. Some managers are challenged by disparate employee populations that may not have regular access to the Internet. Others are tasked with upping participation in wellness programs. Some are bogged down in other tasks that leave little time for creative and engaging communications. 

“Ninety-one million Americans are considered functionally health care illiterate,” says Jean Hanvik, president of Lakeville-based health care communications firm Schauer Global Health, Inc. (SGH). “That could be everything from ‘I don’t know how to use my benefits,’ to ‘I don’t know what it means when my doctor tells me to take my medication in a particular way.’” That statistic, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, illustrates how important it is for benefit and HR managers to continually offer basic knowledge to employees. 

The Tough Stuff

Benefit messages face stiff competition when it comes to grabbing employees’ attention. At M. A. Mortenson Company, a commercial construction firm in Golden Valley, Manager of Retirement Benefits Annette Grabow notes how many demands are put on employees just inside the company. “I’m competing with all the internal training that’s going on, I’m competing with HR, I’m competing with the wellness programs, I’m competing with the stewardship committee,” she says. “There’s this constant communication going on with employees.”

Mark Meier, director of human resources for Force America, a manufacturer of mobile hydraulic systems in Burnsville, says his biggest challenge is getting forms back from employees on a timely basis. Force America has 245 employees in at least 14 different locations. Rather than holding meetings at each facility, Meier relies on onsite managers to encourage employees to send their enrollment forms back, and to answer questions or direct employees to Meier or the company Web site. However, many Force America employees who work in a shop or warehouse setting don’t have regular access to computers. Previously, Meier sent paper annual enrollment forms to all employees in the mail, but now they receive this information by e-mail. The main insurance enrollment document is an interactive electronic form, which employees either e-mail back or print out and send back. 

And of course, just because you get the forms back doesn’t mean they’re complete. Meier estimates that 20 to 25 percent of employees don’t completely or correctly fill out annual enrollment forms. 

Perhaps the most frustrating difficulty for benefit managers is that employees don’t take the time to learn about their benefits. “People just don’t spend enough time on an important decision like this,” Fritz says. “They spend more time evaluating which car they’re going to buy than which health insurance plan they should own.” In situations such as choosing a health insurance plan, where there isn’t an instantaneous link between paying and getting what you pay for, people are less engaged in the decision, Fritz believes.

But despite the difficulty in reaching far-flung locations, and butting heads with procrastination and short attention spans, benefit managers continue to dig their heels in and deliver communications that make an impression.


Reaching Out

When compared to other benefits, “companies are spending the most time communicating about health care,” says George Gmach, director of compensation and benefits at Trusight, a human resources consulting company in Plymouth. Other experts concur. With the move in some firms to health care spending accounts and high-deductible health plans, employees have had to assume more risk and pay more for their benefits. There’s also the looming health care system overhaul—far from finalized but already making heads spin—which will completely change the health benefits landscape.

So benefit managers are approaching their communications from many angles. “You have to hit everybody with every kind of media you have access to, because the person who likes the color chart does not like the quiz or the contest or the e-mail,” Grabow says. “Some people read their e-mail; a lot of people don’t. Some like to get things at home; some don’t.”

So for this year’s retirement education program, Grabow hit them with all she’s got. The theme was celebrating 50 years of profit sharing at Mortenson, for which she had invitations with a “solid gold” and disco ball theme made. The invitations were placed on employees’ desks so they found them first thing in the morning. “Desk drops are really good, I think, because they’re just right there in front of them,” Grabow says. “They can’t ignore them like an e-mail or not open their mail.”

A new piece of retirement education this year is an Adobe Flash flipbook posted on the company intranet. Employees received an e-mail with a link to the flipbook, which has audio and pages that turn, and explains retirement benefits. It links to a separate page where they can register for in-person workshops. 

Flipbooks and Flash-supported sites are definitely catching on. This year, SGH created a Flash site for St. Jude Medical, a medical device company in Little Canada, that contained all of the traditional benefits enrollment material. The site, sjmbenefitsvideo.com, looks like a leatherbound planner with tabs for medical, pharmacy, dental, vision, and flexible spending account benefits and life insurance. Users click on a tab, and a video provides an explanation of that particular benefit, the vendor supplying it, enrollment dates, costs, and more.

As part of Land O’Lakes’ ongoing wellness effort, this year Emily Maher, senior benefits manager for the Arden Hills–based food and agriculture cooperative, created a multipronged campaign that emphasized the use of the company’s custom health insurance and wellness Web site, participation in biometric screenings, and an incentive program that allows employees to earn gift cards for, among other things, participating in Weight Watchers and completing a health assessment. 

The campaign began with a wellness newsletter mailed to homes, and posters and newsletters mailed to Land O’Lakes locations to remind employees to visit the company’s benefit Web site. “We also have biometric screenings that we do across the country,” Maher says. The screenings, held in company locations with 50 or more employees, measure cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index, and other factors. 

Half of Land O’Lakes employees don’t have access to the company intranet, so Maher puts the annual enrollment video—which explains the company’s various benefit programs—on the external Web site. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the staff to go to 200 locations and host meetings,” Maher says. “It’s a way to deliver our message in another medium.” The video is also put on DVDs and sent to each facility. 

To grab employees’ attention, Hanvik says SGH has developed online tools and smartphone applications  that provide health information and retirement calculators, and orgaznize users’ data such as blood type, allergies, medications, personal health records, and insurance information.

Grabow is grouping employees by career stage for her retirement workshops. This year, she held different workshops for early-, mid-, and late-career employees so that she could more accurately hone her message to each group. “It is working like gangbusters. They are loving it,” Grabow says. One early-career group said they appreciated not having to hear about saving for college, because they’re not even thinking about kids yet. 

Land O’Lakes is communicating about benefits in partnership with Cigna, the company’s health insurance carrier. The health team makes calls to employees and their dependents based on data it receives through claims, providers, and health assessments. If an employee indicates he wants to lose weight, for instance, the outreach team will call the employee to tell him he’s eligible for a discounted Weight Watchers membership. Maher says a high number of those contacted end up participating in Land O’Lakes’ wellness programs. 

Kathryn Helmke, senior benefits and employment law consultant for Trusight, says that some companies are falling back on their traditional one-size-fits-all communication, including multimedia, intranet, and e-mail sent to employees, “but doing it in a thoughtful way to get across the value of their benefits.”


Changing Realities

Benefits may feel a bit like luxuries in the current economy. “It is a little more of an employers’ market, at least it has been until recently,” Gmach says. “[Companies] have sort of retrenched back to very basic, necessary things, and haven’t felt quite as much need to impress upon their people the value of benefits, because right now people have been very happy just to be employed.” But as the economy expands and improves, he believes companies will have to get more competitive, and that means explaining the value of benefits to employees in clear language using many different techniques. 

Fritz acknowledges that some HR managers are playing catch-up with the new state of health benefits communication. He says most were trained to create employee benefits packages, not to engage employees in health and wellness initiatives. But a lot rides on this new set of HR skills, including employee retention, a company’s competitive edge, and a healthy work force. It’s likely that employers who understand what’s at stake will move toward change. 

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