Employee Benefits Communication Guide
Make the most of your benefits with effective year-round communication.
The current state of benefits communication
Let’s get one thing straight: the tried-and-true methods of benefits communication are no longer tried or true. In fact, they just might be what’s led to declining utilization, increasing confusion, and the fact that 90% of employees can’t define the most common insurance terms.
The irony is that as employers stack benefit on top of benefit in a bid to win the talent war, employees are increasingly meant to fend for themselves. Just finding that new benefit—which you no doubt worked hard to vet and add—simply requires too much effort. Benefits booklets, email campaigns, posters, lunch and learns—none of it seems to cut through the noise. Employees don’t know how to use their benefits. The result is confusion, dissatisfaction, and employees who bear more of the cost of their healthcare than ever before.
In this guide, we’ve rounded up our best tips for improving your benefits communication. Whether you want strategies for open enrollment or to improve your year-round communications, whether you’re looking to drive engagement or increase utilization, this guide has resources for every benefits communication conundrum.
Why you should kill the employee benefits booklet
In terms of benefits communication, that old employee benefits booklet is public education enemy #1. Like the phone book, the benefits booklet simply doesn’t provide the right kind of information at the right time to drive utilization. Guardian reported in its Workplace Benefits Survey that 3 in 5 millennial workers wish it were easier to understand and access their benefits, and in an HR Tech Weekly poll, 50% of employees reported they couldn’t access their benefits in the way they prefer. The Guardian survey reported that 77% of companies rated employee engagement as a top priority.
Your benefits booklet just isn’t cutting it. That’s because benefits booklets are a maze of complicated language, confusing details, and unclear points of contact. They’re so ineffective that employees will likely neglect to read them entirely. Instead, they’ll wait until they need their benefits, then make a hurried decision (see It’s Time to Kill the Benefits Booklet). If you’re feeling discouraged, try not to panic. Not all communication is doomed. Instead of investing all your efforts in a print product, you can put your weight behind more impactful methods of communication. Strive to meet employees where they actually want to communicate: in their inbox, on their mobile phones, in their Slack feeds, or all of the above (see Why Baby Boomers are Flocking to Healthcare Apps).
The basics of benefits communication
If benefits booklets don’t work, what does? Before we get to our preferred methods of communication, let’s cover some basics. At its root, good benefits communication is simply good communication.
Write like a fifth-grader
Focus on keeping it simple. Most successful communicators know that jargon has no place in good communication. To this end, focus on writing for an audience of 10-year-olds. Would they know how to define words like HSA and deductible? Resist the urge to use the industry’s newest acronym. Remember, your employees have been snoozing through benefits presentations for years. Basic English is your safest bet for clear communication.
Keep it jargon-free
As we mentioned above, 96% of people polled in one study couldn’t define the four most common insurance terms: deductible, co-insurance, co-pay, and out-of-pocket maximum. Use the most basic terms possible in your benefits communications, knowing most employees don’t respond to jargon.
Use real-world examples
Remember that benefits exist in a vacuum, and no one needs them until they need they do. It’s crucial that you help employees understand their benefits in a way that resonates with their life. Instead of saying “you have telemed,” explain that a provider is there 24/7 to discuss their child’s medical issues.
Run benefits communications through a reading level tool
If you’re regularly writing benefits communications, you may not even be aware that you’re writing over-complicated prose. At HealthJoy, we use apps like Grammarly and Hemingway App to test the reading level, or Flesch-Kincaid score, of our writing. Run all your benefits communications through these tools, and see how far you can lower your reading level. The lower, the better.
Personalize your message
Your benefits communication should drive an emotional shift from indifferent to engaged. That means customizing your message to your audience’s life experiences. Consider segmenting your communications for different email lists, focusing on the pain points that create an emotional shift for your audience. Use tools beyond email—think Slack and text messages—to tweak your message for teams who may not be as responsive via email. HealthJoy’s artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant, JOY, can help with this customization.
Make great self-service tools available
Calculate how much those tools are costing you for every use. Even the cheapest tools are expensive when the cost per use skyrockets due to low utilization. Give your employees the tools they can use year-round, on their own, then sit back and watch your HR department save hundreds of hours a year.
Keep it short and digestible
If you don’t employees will lose interest in as little as 2 seconds. The brain sees too much information and simply disengages. It pays to make your benefits communications scannable, containing only the essential points they need. Use short, digestible, bite-sized pieces over lengthy communications (see How to Simplify Benefits Communication for Open Enrollment).
Make it visual
Finally, highlight your important messages with memorable visual imagery. Add graphics like on-brand images, authentic photos, animated GIFs, and beautiful fonts to your employee communications. According to Xerox, using color in communications increases attention span and recall by 82% and motivation by 80%. Need employees to respond during open enrollment? Add some color!
Improve benefits communication during open enrollment
The truest test of your benefits communication strategy will come during open enrollment. During OE, you’ll face disengaged employees and frustrating questions. This is probably why employees leave OE unsure of how to even use their benefits: a Gallup study found that more than 85% of large employers offer a wellness program, but 40% of those employees aren’t aware that the plan exists (see Why Tackling Benefits Awareness is Vital for Your Company). Employees just don’t know enough about their benefits to take advantage of them when they’d be most useful. An Aflac survey showed that 26% of Millennials would rather clean a toilet than research their health benefits. You’re fighting a losing battle. But benefits education is the answer. Taking time to get this phase right is crucial for increasing utilization and employee satisfaction. When done right, you can even increase trust in your benefits and minimize tricky questions down the road.
Improve your benefits presentation
Rolling out the new year’s benefits might start with an employee benefit presentation. Unlike the benefits booklet, you can’t afford to skip this old school step. A benefits presentation is part one of your effective year-round employee benefits communication strategy, but a presentation can catapult your benefits utilization and give your employees something to remember when they need their benefits the most. Of course, the fact that you’ve always done a benefits presentation doesn’t mean you have to use the same formula from year to year. In fact, we recommend you don’t. Just a few ideas (more of which are in our “eBook: 10 Tips for Your Employee Benefits Presentation Inspired by TED Talks”): If so, you can consider a few important points:
Keep slide text minimal
Short and sweet works well. Your employees will likely remember what you said more than what you wrote. Slides are just a visual aid.
Maintain look and feel of your brand
Keep employees engaged by applying your style guide to your benefits presentation.
Benefits may not be the most exciting subject in the world, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid humor. Studies show humor helps with recall.
Smile, pause, use hands, slow down
In other words, master your body language.
Benefits communication requires emails. Make them better.
Like your employee benefits presentation, your open enrollment email campaign is likely in danger of getting stale. Most employees are bombarded with emails outside of open enrollment, and unlikely to open something unless it requires immediate action. To keep the vital information in your emails from falling off the map, revisit them from year to year. Simple tweaks like improving your subject line, cutting the length of your email, and hitting the right conversational tone can make a world of difference. Above all, make sure to proofread your emails. We’re all human, and tools like Grammarly.com make it simple to improve your writing.
Leverage the latest technology for benefits communication
As you consider how to effectively communicate with employees about open enrollment, try switching things up. Consider the demographics of your employee base and build your education campaign around their needs.
If most employees are located in one office,
A lunch-and-learn style meeting might work perfectly well. The same meeting style might be difficult for your remote sales team to attend. Those employees may need a follow-up message on Slack with details from the meeting. Or, they may respond well to a live virtual Q&A through Zoom.
Perhaps you’re speaking to a mostly rural workforce.
They aren’t often at their desks and check email just once a day, so the best way to reach them may be through a combination of a couple emails and mailers sent to their home.
An SMS messaging campaign
or a push notification campaign for those with benefits centralized in an app, is likely to be effective no matter the demographics of your employee base.
By meeting people on the devices they already use and cutting through the noise in their inbox, short, punchy push notifications effectively get the message across. To succeed in benefits education during OE, make use of all the technology at your fingertips.
Build trust through benefits communications
Keep in mind that if you’re introducing a new benefit, you can either quickly build trust—or break it—with a few steps. Research indicates we decide almost immediately whether to trust something new. Once trust is lost, it’s extremely difficult, or even impossible, to gain back. To quickly establish trust in your new benefits:
Ask senior leadership to share their positive experiences with your new offering. Nothing establishes trust like real-world examples.
Display data security protocols. Does your benefits provider have a page with this information that’s in plain English? Are there security badges to include alongside their logo? Include all of these pieces in your benefits communication from the very beginning.
Solicit feedback. Ask your employees how they feel about their new benefit using an anonymous tool like Survey Monkey. Keep a finger on issues to remedy them before utilization tanks.
Smoothly Introduce Plan Design Changes
In 2018, there was a 20 percent increase in the number of employers offering at least one high-deductible health plan (HDHP) compared to 2016 in their plan design.
Other additions and changes are proliferating as well as companies work to add more value in a competitive job market. That puts HR in the uncomfortable position of explaining that the benefits employees have always enjoyed might be changing (see Navigating an Employee Benefits Plan Design Change).
Changing your plan design can be jarring for employees, especially because most don’t understand the basics of their insurance plan. In fact, according to the UnitedHealthcare Consumer Sentiment Survey, only 9 percent of the U.S. population showed an understanding of all four of these basic health insurance terms: plan premium, deductible, coinsurance, and out-of-pocket maximum.
Help employees by explaining in plain English what’s new with their plan. Don’t forget that employees may be starting from scratch, and that understanding benefits design takes time.
Keep benefits top-of-mind throughout the year
First, a question: how are you spending the 364 days outside of open enrollment? Assuming you’ve sailed easily through open enrollment, it’s time to consider how you’ll approach benefits education throughout the year. No matter how effective your OE rollout was, following up with months of silence can lead to low benefits satisfaction, poor healthcare decisions, and low utilization. This is your chance to make sure employee benefits are top-of-mind well beyond your enrollment period, that utilization is high, and that employees are making the most of all you offer. Ultimately, this is the way benefits communication drives employee benefits satisfaction.
Build a 365-day employee benefits education campaign
In conjunction with open enrollment, begin considering how you’ll promote your benefits and encourage engagement throughout the year. Build a cohesive communication and engagement strategy that supports your goals, addresses issues, and keeps employees happy. Using the same tools and analysis you employed during open enrollment, send employees and their families communications designed to help them use their benefits throughout the year (see Why Employees Don’t Use Your EAP Program).
- Plan for quarterly email updates highlighting specific benefits features. Short and sweet works well. Your employees will likely remember what you said more than what you wrote. Slides are just a visual aid.
- Keep your finger on the pulse of how employees are using benefits. Solicit feedback, ask for questions, and track performance with your benefits provider.
- Keep things current with seasonal communications. Address allergies in the spring, encourage skin cancer screenings in the summer, and remind employees about flu shots in the winter.
A year-round benefits communication plan is also an opportunity to highlight your cost-containment efforts.
- Prompt employees to enroll in your pharmacy savings program with an SMS message.
- Educate employees on the confidentiality of their EAP program through an email.
- Get families on board with a direct mail campaign.
If your benefits are accessible from a centralized location, use campaigns (at HealthJoy we rely on our AI assistant, JOY, to head these) to drive awareness and satisfaction (see Driving Family Benefits Engagement Beyond OE).
Track your progress
There’s always room for improvement. If you aren’t tracking the success of your benefits communications, you won’t be able to iterate and improve. First, it’s crucial to test KPI’s. You might track open rates on emails or look for a spike in dependent enrollments after sending out a direct mail campaign. Or, after a broad benefits education campaign, you could track HR questions to measure the success of your initiatives (see HealthJoy Accelerates Your Cost-Containment Strategy). Once you know what is (or isn’t) working, you can adjust as much as your population allows. Changes might be as minor as changing an email header or posting in Slack, or as major as implementing a new SMS messaging system. Don’t be discouraged if your efforts don’t succeed right away—successful benefits communication is all about adjusting messaging to fit your unique employee base.
Driving employee satisfaction with benefits communication
From outdated benefits booklets to stale presentations, benefits communications no longer work the way we expect. The result is low employee engagement, low employee benefits satisfaction, and poor healthcare decisions.
Luckily, there’s a solution. By employing the basics of good communication, you’ll establish a firm foundation. From there, analyze your OE communication plan. Consider killing your benefits booklet in favor of delivering benefits communication in a way that meets employees, and their families, where they already are.
During open enrollment, nail your presentation and emails with a few of our tips, leverage technology to get creative with campaigns, and pay attention to building employee trust right away. Don’t get nervous when introducing a plan change. Instead, help employees see the upside and offer support to navigate changes.
After OE, don’t neglect the remaining 364 days of the year. A year-round communication plan and willingness to track and tweak are essential. Build a strong benefits communication and watch as employee engagement and benefits satisfaction soar.