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Making ‘Benefits Information Amnesia’ a Distant Memory

Here are three ideas on how to make benefits communication more effective.

July 15, 2014
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Related Topics: Benefits Design and Communication, Health Care Benefits, The Latest, Benefits
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Benefits Communication July 2014

Some things tend to stick in the mind.

Like the lyrics to the song you played on repeat the first summer you were in love. Or, on the flip side, the not-so-sweet thing you overheard a co-worker say about the sound you make when you sneeze.

However, for better or worse, most of us forget far more than we remember. Things like Internet passwords, basic recipes, how exactly to use the old coffee machine at our new job and employee benefits information.

Yes, employees — even the fantastic, intelligent ones where you work — forget a whole lot of what they learn about some pretty basic aspects of their benefits during orientation. And if the research of “Working With Words” authors Ruth Gairns and Stuart Redman can be believed, 80 percent of what we all forget will fly out of our ears within24 hoursof us first learning it. For our purposes here, we’ll call this phenomenon, as it applies to benefits communication, “benefits information amnesia.”

Though benefits information amnesia might not be listed in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” it’s a real thing. There are three strains of this common but underappreciated problem: plan amnesia, resource amnesia and options and details amnesia.

Forgetful Folks
You and your HR team know your benefits inside and out. That’s your job. But you might be surprised by what your employees don’t remember despite your best efforts to keep them up to date.

    •    Only 43 percent overall know they can make changes to their health plan enrollment for a qualifying event like marriage, divorce or having a child.

    •     About 9 percent think they can make changes at any time.

    •    More than a quarter of people (26 percent) don’t know whether their company offers flexible spending accounts for parking and transit costs.

    •    Ten percent don’t know if their company offers a FSA for medical expenses.

    •    Nearly 19 percent don’t know if their workplace has a wellness program.

    •    Twelve percent don’t know if their workplace offers long-term disability.

So How Do Employees Actually Prefer to Learn About Benefits?

29 percent prefer one-on-one meetings.
Pros: Chance to get advice tailored to their personal situation.
Cons: Nearly impossible to pull off at big companies.

19 percent prefer direct mail.
Pros: Can review with spouse at home on their schedule.
Cons: Mailed information less helpful if there are questions.

18 percent prefer information provided on a website.
Pros: Paperless communication is simpler and offers 24/7 access.
Cons: Hard to find what you need to know if you’re not sure what that is.

14 percent prefer a live presentation.
Pros: Other people’s questions are helpful.
Cons: Hard to stay focused the whole time.

10 percent prefer a benefits fair.
Pros: You can target the information that matters to you and avoid what doesn’t.
Cons: Too many people, not enough tailored information.

Source: "ALEX Asks: What Employees Think About Your Benefits Communication," a study conducted by Jellyvision Inc.

—Justyn Harkin

What Is 'Plan Amnesia'?

You and your crack human resources team live and breathe the fine points of health care plans, but for many employees, picking a plan is something they did quickly, and maybe not thoughtfully, a long time ago. Some people forget what type of plan they have, period.

Likely you’ve heard people say things like, “I think I have a PPO” or “It’s the one where I pay less upfront, I forget the name,” or “It’s the same one I had last year.” This confusion isn’t anything that a quick chat with you or these employees’ insurance provider can’t quickly straighten out, of course, unless these employees also have "resource amnesia."

What Is 'Resource Amnesia'?

Believe it or not, despite all the care you take to explain benefits to employees when they begin a job or during open enrollment — not to mention the care you take to seem approachable and nice and funny during orientation — some employees who find themselves in need of benefits answers months or years later might have actually forgotten who you are altogether, especially if you work for a large company.

Now, it’s possible these employees suffer from face blindness, but most likely it’s just plain-old resource amnesia. And even if they do remember you, they might have forgotten things like where on the company intranet the link to their benefits rundown is. Or what their password is, if needed, to access that information. Which — let’s get real — is reason enough for a lot of people to give up on investigating the thing they were considering checking out, and just rolling with whatever they already have.

What Is 'Options and Details Amnesia'?

The most pervasive form of benefits amnesia, however, is probably options and details amnesia, which isn’t thatsurprising considering all the granular information included in any single insurance plan.

According to a study Jellyvision Inc. commissioned last year (Editor’s note: The author works at Jellyvision), “ALEX Asks: What Employees Think About Your Benefits Communication,” employees are unsure about — or totally unaware of — many options within their plans … and the circumstances under which they’re allowed to make changes to their health plans. For example:

About 29 percent of employees aren’t sure whether their company provides critical illness and/or accident insurance.

Just under half (45 percent) are under the false impression that they have to pay something extra to participate in their company wellness program.

And though 87 percent of employees say they “somewhat agree,” “agree” or “completely agree” that they know when they can make changes to their health plan, less than a third (about 30 percent) actually understand that they’re only able to change enrollment information during open enrollment or qualifying events.

Benefits amnesia in all its forms is a real problem, and not just in a “Hey, this bruises my benefits-nerd-ego” kind of way. Employees who aren’t on top of their health care plans can get sideswiped when unexpected medical events land in their lives or when the structure of their plans changes year to year.

“The impacts of this problem can be pretty far-ranging,” said Robert Peters, Principal at Pritchard & Jerden, a privately owned risk management and insurance services company. “Employees can miss out on opportunities to use critical benefits they might not even know they had or get hit with costs that they didn’t plan for. It’s a major issue.”

So, now that we’ve identified the problem, what can HR departments like yours do about it?

Here are a few simple ideas.

1. Keep benefits issues front-of-mind for employees year-round through a steady stream of communication.

In advertising, there’s a concept called “effective frequency,” which is the theoretical number of times a consumer needs to encounter an ad before he or she responds to it. There are all sorts of theories about what the magic number is. Some say at least three, some seven, some 20. But the point is that shorter, targeted communications spaced out over time might be more effective in keeping your messages front-of-mind than a few communications blowouts just once or twice a year. 

Sure, this involves an investment of time and some extra HR-team elbow grease, but if you look at the challenge of connecting with your employees through short emails or low-stakes events as an opportunity to mine your department’s creativity and (hopefully) get your employees to laugh or smile … well, then it’s sort of a fun challenge, right? And if nothing else, it’s a great excuse to break out the high-end snacks during a brainstorming session.

2. Whenever possible, communicate one-on-one with employees or in a way that captures that one-on-one feeling.

Another finding from the aforementioned study was that, when it comes to communication preferences, the largest segment (29 percent) of employees prefers one-on-one interactions with their HR department. (By comparison, “live presentation” clocked in at just under 14 percent.)

You might be thinking, “Duh,” or “The only way we could do everything one-on-one is if our HR department had a magic cloning machine.” And that’s fair. Depending on your resources and the number of employees in question, recurring one-on-one communication might not always be possible.

But there are simple ways to convey that “it’s-just-me-and-you-here” feeling. For example, those companywide emails you send every so often about benefits stuff? What if you did what savvy marketers do and include the recipients’ name up top in the salutation? Or consider communicating certain information via a quick little video, taken with your smartphone, embedded in an email, as opposed to a long list of bullet points?

Or, during open enrollment, maybe it’s worth using an automated benefits communication system that can respond to employee’s questions and empower them to make smarter decisions?

Truly, this can all make a difference. And especially if you heed tip No. 3:

3.  Don’t frustrate employees with unnecessary industry-speak. Be as clear and engaging as possible.

Non-HR employees, like A-list celebrities, are just like you. They can quickly become grumpy and overwhelmed and tune it all out when they’re bombarded with technical terms they don’t understand that are presented in an impersonal manner — even if the information they’re receiving is useful to them.

Though sometimes it may be easier to simply pass on information in the same industry language in which you might have received it, don’t. Take a few minutes to read over your communications and translate jargon into plain English. Shoot a quick email to the marketing or creative-writing whizzes in your company to see if they might be able to help out. (Keep in mind, of course, that you’d never want to change any specialized terms that are the bread and butter of a particular plan; that would only confuse things).  

Think about where your audience is coming from and what their objections, questions or concerns might be. If you were sitting across from a friend of yours, say, over a burrito lunch, how would you explain Offering X or Important Event Y?

Also, don’t be shy about using some humor. It shouldn’t be anything inappropriate, disparaging or overly wacky. Keep your Gallagher malletat home. But a little subtle, natural humor can go a long way toward engaging employees and then keeping them engaged.

“The key to combating benefits amnesia, I’ve found, is to give information to employees in a way that makes the learning process fun and easy for them,” Peters said. “When you assault them with a bunch of industry blather, their eyes glaze over and it goes right over their heads. You need to engage employees, and trying to see things from their perspective is a good start.”

So, in a nutshell: Simpler, friendlier, more regular communications can go a long way toward beating benefits information amnesia. Consider where your audience is coming from and you’ll seem more like a person they can trust — a person who gets them. And when it comes to convincing people to pay attention to anything, that’s half the battle.

Justyn Harkin is a benefits communications specialist for Jellyvision Inc. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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