Making health insurance decisions is stressful for half of employees, and the need for partnering with brokers and benefits providers to provide better communication has never been more important. 

In today’s tight job market, many employers rely on a quality benefits package to attract and retain employees. But even the best benefits offerings can go unappreciated and underused if employees don’t understand them. That’s why benefits communication is increasingly seen as an essential part of a successful benefits strategy.

With the growth of benefits offerings—including the wide range of voluntary benefits now available—employers may feel overwhelmed trying to educate their workers about different products. A 2017 survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults by Jellyvision found that 55 percent of employees whose companies offer health insurance say they would like help from their employer when choosing a health plan. Nearly half (49 percent) said making health insurance decisions is always stressful, while 1 in 5 admitted they don’t always keep up with benefits correspondence. These concerns suggest that the need for partnering with brokers and benefits providers has never been more important.

Related: Open Enrollment Tips for Benefits Managers

“There has been a lot of change in the benefits market,” says Chris Morris, senior vice president and partner at Benefits Communications. “We’re finding that almost all of our customers are making incremental changes every year, which requires a higher level of consumer education.”

Chris Bruce, co-founder and managing director of Thomsons Online Benefits, notes that employers are realizing that communications are key to creating loyal workers. “Benefits communication has a significant impact on employee engagement, which remains a key objective for HR professionals,” he says. “Engaged employees are more productive and more likely to remain with an employer.

The bottom line is that with the right help, companies large and small can effectively communicate with their workers about the benefits they offer. It certainly takes work, but with the proper resources, strategies, and knowledge of their workforce, brokers and their clients can find the tools to both offer and implement quality benefits for workers.

Communication gaps exist—but can be bridged

Much discussion about benefits communication has centered around demographic and generational divisions: boomers are more comfortable with written material, younger workers want to use online platforms and get their information via their phones. These stereotypes of course have plenty of truth to them. Brokers and employers alike have found good success with a multi-pronged approach, one that targets age groups with the kinds of media they prefer.

But other gaps in communication exist as well. For example, remote workers have become much more common, and benefits communication with these workers presents unique challenges.

“Someone who is a remote worker may not see posters or information at work,” says Katie Hanson, director of product management at Benefitfocus. They might not have access to the same benefits, such as office gyms or healthy onsite meals.

Although employers can work out balanced total compensation packages for such employees, communication is still important for employees who don’t see their managers and co-workers during the workday. The good news, Hanson says, is that these workers are used to communicating online. “These workers already have some strong communication channels, that’s what they’re doing every single day. They’re diligent with digital communication.”

Morris notes that with so much emphasis on recruitment and retention, getting new hires interested in benefits plans has become crucial. “The first 30 days are really important; these workers are making a lot of decisions,” he says. “What we’re finding is that if you can get a new employee to invest or enroll in benefits, and they find that satisfying, their odds of staying on long-term are much higher.”

Morris adds that the more complicated the changes in benefits plans, the more person-to-person communication helps. “For new hires, our recommended strategy is that new employees would use our call center to help them walk through the benefits,” he says. “As a new hire, they’re making a lot of decisions, so with human interaction to answer questions, we see a higher level of enrollment.”

He says that phone support is also valuable to all employees, depending on how complex the information is. “What we find is that if there’s a lot of change going on, people want to talk to a person, to ask questions,” he says. “If there are not major changes, folks want to go online and do it quickly.”

Customize communications for employers—and employees

One of the main points that industry experts stress is the importance of customizing communication approaches to a company’s workforce. A one-size-fits-all approach is simply not going to be effective.

According to Shelley McLean, principal with OneDigital, employers need to understand the importance of prioritizing benefits communications, since it affects both employee satisfaction and the company’s bottom line. “When you’re talking about one of the largest line items on an employer’s budget, having a benefits communication plan that is effective and carefully crafted is going to be important,” she says. “A communication plan needs to be carefully developed; not just an afterthought for enrollment.”

In addition, McLean emphasizes the need for input from employees. “Feedback from employees is often missed in communications plans. We believe companies should survey employees about what can be done better, and understand that they need to hear directly from employees.”

Hanson notes that benefits products can be bundled and online menus can suggest options, just as Amazon or other retailers often suggest items to consumers with a “you may also enjoy”-type button. “We can show them why we think it might be valuable to them,” she says. “For example, a high-deductible plan might be shown with complementary products. If a consumer is shopping for single items, they might not be sure they need a product. If you present options as a group, it makes more sense.”

Hanson agrees that input from employees is very important in customizing benefits plans. “Something we talk about with brokers is how to keep employees and consumers at the heart of things,” she says. “A lot of our investment is to partner with brokers in making sure we’re constantly engaged with our consumers, really learning what their expectations are, and making sure we bring that into the benefits experience.”

A year-round approach

Another important point is that with so many options and so much information out there about products, employees need more time to digest information about their benefits options.

Trying to cram in too much information at open enrollment—or for that matter, when a new employee begins work—can create confusion and indecision. “If you invest in information throughout the year, education really does pay off,” says Hanson. “You get diminishing returns if you just pile on the information at one time of the year.”

Hanson adds that there are many ways to include benefits communication throughout the year. “Brokers can work with companies to take advantage of how their culture already works,” she says. “One employer we worked with was very meeting-heavy, so they used those meeting times to research benefits and enroll employees. They used their normal systems to create action and increase participation.”

McLean, who compares trying to cram too much benefits information in at once to “drinking out of a fire hose,” adds that sharing benefits information on a monthly basis helps employees get used to thinking about benefits more often, but that employers should be creative in how they educate their workers.

“For some of our clients, we do mid-year face-to-face meetings or mid-year webinars,” she notes. “Send the same message in many different ways. You should be a chameleon with your strategy.”