Low employee engagement in benefits programs is a common problem, one that continues to grow as health care benefits become more complicated and costs continue to rise. In fact, many large employers report year-long engagement rates among employees and their benefits to be less than 10 percent. The reason? Employees have a hard time understanding how their benefits work. Despite the best efforts of brokers and benefits managers to develop great plans and educate employees on how to take advantage of their benefits, engagement in health care and tax advantaged accounts remain stagnant at best. The great news is that, with a little bit of creativity, you can successfully engage employees and increase enrollment over time.

In this article, we look at some of the factors behind poor employee engagement, discuss how it impacts business for both brokers and employers, and reveal how to successfully engage employees with innovative education programs designed with the employee in mind.

Why aren’t employees more engaged with health benefit programs?

The reality is that you could offer the best possible health care options out there, but if employees don’t understand what they are and how they benefit from them, they’re more likely to have a negative perception. Low engagement comes down to two primary factors – confusion and complexity.

Historically, employers offered traditional health care plans with monthly premiums that came out of employees’ paychecks, low copays for doctor visits and prescriptions, and straightforward co-insurance payments. Simple. Now, as health care costs have increased, we have seen the popularity of high-deductible plans skyrocket. In fact, one-third of large employers now only offer a high-deductible plan. While premiums for high-deductible plans are typically far lower than those for traditional health plans, employees don’t see this. Most employees aren’t aware of how high their premiums were before. What they do see are the new out-of-pocket expenses in the form of the high deductible they must reach before insurance starts to cover the bulk of their health care expenses.

To help offset upfront medical costs, an employer can also offer a flexible spending Aaccount (FSA) and health savings account (HSA). These tax-advantaged accounts make it more manageable for employees to meet their plan deductibles while reducing their tax liability. However, what goes through the employee’s head is, “Hold on. I already have to pay for this health plan that has a high deductible before expenses are covered, and now you want me to open up an HSA or FSA to take more money from me?” You see the problem. Even if you’re able to convince them of the account benefits, you’re still tasked with explaining the types of accounts, the rules and requirements for each, etc.

The new state of health care is complex for employees. Only 52 percent said they understood their health benefits in 2017, which is down from previous years. Employees don’t understand many of their options or how to make the most out of what is offered to them, so they simply don’t engage.

How can benefit enrollment numbers impact my business?

Whether you’re a broker or an employer, low enrollment numbers are bad for business.

If you’re perceived to have “bad” benefits as an employer, you’re going to have a hard time recruiting and retaining talent in today’s highly competitive market. In fact, 83 percent of employees surveyed in 2018 said health insurance benefits are very or extremely important in deciding whether to stay in or change jobs. If you’re a broker with clients who can’t get their employees to engage, you could be faced with unsatisfied clients looking to make a switch.

High enrollment in benefits programs, on the other hand, can fuel business growth.

For employers, high benefit engagement not only equates to a greater ability to attract and retain employees but to also lower health care costs. Organizations with high benefits enrollment are shown to have healthier employees, with optimal productivity and happiness. Healthier employees in turn keep health care premiums lower over time.

For brokers, high benefit enrollment is job security. Your clients are happy with the benefits program you put together if their employees are happy with their benefits. Plus, greater enrollment equates to greater profit for your business.

What can I do to boost enrollment?

Education is the key to overcoming barriers to increase enrollment. A wealth of materials already exist to explain health care plans and their advantages, but these materials are often geared towards informing versus educating. They define what an HSA or FSA is, the account rules, what’s covered and so forth, but at that point the employee is already lost and overwhelmed. Effective education can only happen when information is presented in a simple, relatable way that takes plan advantages and applies them to everyday situations. Among FSA non-users, for example, 52 percent say they aren’t sure if an FSA would cover the types of expenses they have. Benefit education needs to clearly explain to the employee why they would want the plan, how it works and, most importantly, how they would experience it.

Another important factor to increasing enrollment is educating employees year-round, for both those who have and haven’t enrolled. Sixty-eight percent of those without HSAs said that knowing more would make them more likely to sign up. Engagement doesn’t happen overnight; however, consistently putting the right materials in front of employees increases their familiarity with the topics and decreases anxiety tied to health care benefits over time. This in turn improves the likelihood that they will engage with the benefits program and enroll when they have the opportunity.

What does an engaging benefits education program look like?

An engaging benefits education program will use language, themes and situations that are relatable for the intended audience. Giving real-life, specific scenarios for families that bring their benefits to life is crucial to fostering a real sense of understanding that leads to engagement. Just keep in mind the employee audience, as concerns and situations that are relevant for one generation, for example, may not be relevant for another.

A good employee education program will also leverage different types of mediums and formats – from stories and tip sheets to videos and blogs – to account for individual learning styles, familiarity with health care terms and preferences. Even social media can be a great option for information sharing and education. Regularly pushing different kinds of content will keep things fresh while reinforcing topics.

One example of such an approach is DataPath’s The Adventures of Captain Contributor program, an employee education program that capitalized on the popularity of superheroes and comic books. The superhero theme not only appeals to a wide demographic, but it embodies everything that health care plans aren’t – simple and fun. The Captain Contributor program stars a pair of caped superheroes who help individuals and families solve various personal challenges. In the process, they explain how employee benefit accounts can help people conquer similar problems while also creating tax savings. Program components include videos, comic books, fact sheets, communications templates, promotional items, sales support accessories and active social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

The program has been very popular with employees and, most importantly, has sparked conversation around benefits.

How do I find an effective education and engagement program?

There are many engaging benefits education programs out there, but the effectiveness of each will vary depending on your intended audience. The key is to do your homework. Take a closer look at your employees and/or your clients’ employees. What are their concerns, interests and demographics? From there, do some research to see what programs exist and determine which most closely aligns with the needs of your clients.

Partnering with a third-party administrator or administrative platform provider that offers a year-round, multimedia channel engagement approach, versus a library of materials, can have a transformative effect on enrollment numbers and business growth. Brokers who provide their clients with various educational themes based on their industry and employee demographics are able to deliver a higher level of service and take pressure off HR teams. With the right, creative educational programs in place, high employee engagement and benefits enrollment can become a reality.

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Bo Armstrong is a national conference speaker and author of numerous white papers and articles on the health care benefits industry. As DataPath’s Chief Marketing Officer, Bo focuses on identifying emerging market trends within the benefits industry and advocating for customers and their needs within DataPath.