Benefits Beat

Engagement, Apathy and Benefits Plans

As technology gets more sophisticated, employers can’t do enough to educate employees about their privacy and protections.

We all walk around with unbelievably powerful computers in our pockets. An incredible 77 percent of Americans across income levels have a smartphone, and that number will continue to grow. The data our phones collect helps to personalize the world around us in so many ways, from the information we see in personalized ads, to the news we consume, to the brands we interact with. This highly personalized and targeted consumer experience is so ingrained in our daily lives that most of the time we don’t even realize it.

That same level of tailoring and data-driven personalization is quickly making its way into the employee benefits and HR space. We see incredibly smart tools and resources that provide personalized views of benefits, work and life. For instance, there are wellness apps that push out notifications about upcoming health screenings, fitness challenges and other wellness events for employees. Financial apps automate bill paying and saving money. And benefits enrollment platforms customize enrollment options to make choices easier for employees.

As we look ahead, advanced analytics will play a big role in benefits and HR. That means companies will be using techniques and tools such as data mining, statistics, predictive modeling and machine learning to analyze current data and make predictions about future events. And, we’ll start to see personalized health and financial experiences that mirror those used in the consumer marketing world and (hopefully) motivate meaningful behavior change.

All this technology is impressive, and its potential is tremendous. We know engagement in health, financial and work-life programs is a real challenge for employers. Most large employers invest millions in benefits to help employees and their families make good health care decisions, get the best care, change their habits for the better, save for their futures and enjoy today. And, most of these programs go unused, despite their value to the employee.

Health care tech company Accolade partnered with Harris in a poll last year and found that 43 percent of Americans say they have not used employer-sponsored programs such as wellness apps, condition management programs, provider cost transparency tools and second opinion services program within the past year. Only 13 percent have used them once, and 18 percent have used them two to three times. This engagement gap — and the business cost associated with it — is precisely the reason so many technology companies have developed smart technology to get employees the right resources at the right time.

Using data to make employee benefits and HR programs relevant and sticky is a great idea, of course, and it meets a real need. But it isn’t without challenging privacy and comfort-level issues.

Whether employees welcome these new efforts or are suspicious of them comes down to trust, culture and communication. There’s no question that employers want to improve outcomes and reduce costs. And, they also have their employees’ best interests at heart. Better health and financial outcomes create a positive impact for the business and for individual employees. Those two goals are not inconsistent with one another.

But this positive, employee-focused framing isn’t often the way large organizations approach these efforts — and the media generally doesn’t help make this case with its focus on exceptions, instead of best practices.

As technology gets more sophisticated, employers can’t do enough to educate employees about their privacy and protections. Employees need to understand the considerable effort their companies take to offer programs and resources that help them improve their health and their lives — why you make that effort, how the programs work, and how employees are protected. We must remind employees that there are stringent laws in place to safeguard individual employee data from employers. Benefits and HR leaders get aggregate data about employee health, but no one gets access to individual heath data.

Engagement with health programs will continue to lag — even with the best policies in place — until employers put resources, creativity and consistency into marketing their programs. The onus is on the employer to position programs so they are relevant, valuable and actionable for employees and their families, just like the consumer products we all know and love. Until we do that, suspicions will remain and valuable programs will go unused.

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