BHCG Monitor: Focus on Health Care Benefits

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Making Benefits Communication Better

Mary Rode, The Write Source

Health care reform, the proliferation of high deductible health plans and health savings accounts (HSAs), integrated wellness programs, financial wellness education – the need has never been greater for employers to establish an effective, year-round employee benefits communication strategy. As a plethora of recent research has shown, employers have a significant stake in effectively communicating employee benefits and providing valuable information and education to employees regarding the use of benefits, consumerism and health and wellness.

The “right” communication goes a long way toward helping employees and dependents understand, appreciate and use their benefits – as well as helping employers manage costs and increase employee retention and engagement. From formulating a strategy to actual communication development, there are some basic tips for success that employers should consider when creating benefits communications.

Start with a strategy

How do you go about increasing the effectiveness of your benefits communication efforts? It all starts with building a strategy:

Know your audience

Think about the different audiences you will be communicating with – including dependents.  How well are they being served by your existing media and where are the gaps? Consider performing a workforce audit to understand your demographics. You may choose to undergo a qualitative audit by employing focus groups or conduct a quantitative audit using internal surveys and questionnaires.

Many employers make the mistake of lumping all of their employees in one big group and using the same strategy and media for all. However, a new graduate is going to be keyed into different benefits than a pre-retiree or a primary breadwinner – and the preferred media for communication will vary as well. Make sure to also develop a different level of communication for managers and leaders who communicate with internal audiences – they will help you to communicate with your other audiences.

Set goals and objectives

It may sound elementary, but communication goals and objectives are necessary so employers don’t end up communicating for the sake of communicating – as can happen when reacting to a specific event like open enrollment or a benefit or vendor change. Goals and objectives also help to select the messaging and tone of the communication.

Goals should be high level and the reason for the communication (e.g., educate employees to become better health care consumers). Objectives are specific actions you want to occur as a result of the communication (e.g., increased participation in a high deductible health plan).

Brand it

Too often organizations spend a lot of time and money externally branding their goods and services and neglect to brand their internal communications. Because of the increasing competition for your employees’ attention, it’s necessary to market your benefits the way you market your company. Select a consumer-oriented and uniform style, logo, design or layout that reflects both your culture and goals to capture your employees’ attention.

Develop key messages

Key messages serve to deliver important information and compel an audience to think, feel or act. When developing key messages, consider clarity, consistency, main points and your tone and appeal. Remember to consider your audience once again – what is their perception of what is important? Typically, human resources and benefits staff have a good handle on this question and do a better job in developing key messages than other parts of an organization.

Select media – and repeat

When considering media for your communication strategy, ask the following questions about your audience: Where or from whom do they get most of their information? Who do they find credible? Where do they spend most of their time? Where are they likely to give you their attention? Where are your employees located? How do you get to your various field offices and branches? Use different media to get employees’ attention. Mix it up to include all electronic and hard copy options that make sense for your audience and budget – print, online, social media and person-to-person.

Don’t forget about the critical need to communicate with dependents – many communication experts agree if benefits are communicated via a website, it’s a good idea to get it out behind a firewall so it can be easily accessed by those at home. Lastly, consistently communicate and repeat information – think outside of the open enrollment box. Continue to impart the same information through other avenues such as social media, payroll stuffers and email and explore technology solutions and creative ideas to produce attention-grabbing communications (e.g., web2print, variable data printing, personalized URLs, contests, videos, etc.).

What should I say?

Once you’ve developed a communication strategy with clear goals, objectives, key messages, and an identifiable brand – and you’ve also done your homework to understand your audience and media options, you’re ready to prepare content.

Keep it simple

Your employees and their families are not benefits experts – avoid technical jargon at all costs and use plain language, remembering the adage that less is more. Be sure to define terms and explain complex topics at every opportunity and in a variety of ways to accommodate different learning styles. Give employees easy to use information that encourages effective benefit use. Employ visuals, iconography, case studies, charts/graphs, tip sheets and summaries in addition to narrative – and use all the white space you can to make your readers feel less intimidated.

Be frank about changes that reduce benefits or increase employee contributions and give employees all the information they need to make decisions. Don’t make employees do the math – show them the cost impact of benefits changes, give them real life examples and let them know how they can save money with their choices.

Put employees first

Allow your employees to see the “what’s in it for me?” by using vernacular that is not employer-focused. Benefits are just that – something to help employees and their families maintain and improve their health and financial wellbeing. When you use statements that start with company needs first, you miss out on a chance to sell your benefits’ value proposition and you may even turn employees off with a company-centric rationale for change.

Treat your employees as partners – share your goals and give them the rationale for decisions – but create a communication strategy that puts them first. Educate employees with background information about rising health care costs, health care reform changes and pertinent news that will emphasize the true value of their benefits. Prepare employees to expect more changes down the road but reassure them that they will be kept informed.

Let employees know you value them by soliciting feedback. Give them ways to communicate with you – through supervisors, focus groups, surveys, social media comments/questions, texts or virtual meetings and webinars – and be sure to always answer their questions and concerns.

In summary

When employing a thoughtful strategy and carefully crafting communication vehicles, employers can build benefits awareness and appreciation and bring a fresh perspective to transform their communications into interesting information that people will actually read and use. Above all, an effective benefits communication strategy is necessary to reach organizational goals and objectives in an ever-changing benefits world. Membership in the Business Health Care Group provides access to preferred pricing with The Write Source, a communications firm.  If you are interested in obtaining more information, contact


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BHCG Monitor: Focus on Health Care Benefits - April 2012