When it comes to communicating with employees about their annual benefits enrollment, most employers are doing a terrible job.

In fact, the readiness score of 12 out of a possible 100 that over 400 small, medium and large employers awarded themselves for planning their employee benefits communications strategy was the lowest of all the activities covered in April’s open enrollment readiness survey. In contrast, this same group of employers with Q1 benefit start dates yielded an overall enrollment readiness score of 33.

“This result is not surprising, but it is ironic,” notes Jack Kwicien, a managing partner at Daymark Advisors, a Baltimore-based consultancy that works with benefits advisers. Referring to findings from MetLife’s annual employee benefit trends study, Kwicien says that even when employers offer a subpar benefits package, if they convey the value of that package through a robust marketing campaign, their employees will have a better understanding of their benefits. Moreover, they will use their healthcare plan more intelligently and will have a greater appreciation for what they are receiving.

“Conversely,” Kwicien says, “an employer can have a superior benefits program, but if that employer fails on the communication side of the equation, then their employees won’t understand their benefits and won’t appreciate all the money their employer is spending on their behalf.”

Open Enrollment Readiness Benchmark
Overall Readiness
Phase
Activity
Readiness
Progress
Phase Readiness

Phase 1

Benefit Plan Design

Phase 1

Benefit Plan Design

Phase 2

Open Enrollment Preparation

Phase 2

Open Enrollment Preparation

Phase 3

Open Enrollment Management

Phase 3

Open Enrollment Management

Phase 4

Open Enrollment Design Analysis & Follow-Up

Phase 4

Open Enrollment Design Analysis & Follow-Up

The reason so many employers fall short with their communications, Kwicien adds, is because they haven’t thought in strategic terms about what they are trying to accomplish with their benefits investment. As a result, they don’t treat their communications as a marketing exercise aimed at selling their employees on the value of their benefits program.

To correct this, the employer’s benefits adviser, working in tandem with the company’s HR department, if it has one, needs to map out a marketing campaign that promotes the benefits package to the client’s workforce. The campaign should take place year-round, Kwicien says, and planned in such a way that something is communicated to the workforce about the benefits plan every four to six weeks. The most effective and widely applicable format for this is usually a newsletter delivered to employees via email.

Kwicien also suggests presenting real-life examples drawn from different employees’ experiences each month in the newsletter. These, he says, are a highly effective means of influencing employee behavior, and reports about how their fellow employees made cost-effective use of their benefits to successfully treat a variety of medical conditions can help other employees become better healthcare consumers. Using these mini-case studies, the adviser can repeatedly drive home the point that by understanding and using their benefits appropriately, employees can not only minimize their own out-of-pocket expenses, but also contribute to keeping the cost of the medical plan in check for the entire group.

These case studies, Kwicien notes, should address the health conditions most frequently encountered by the employee population and can be archived on the employer’s web site as part of a library of content about using the benefits plan. “These write-ups are not just a one and done,” he says, “but can be recycled four or six months later, using a different format.” The repetition, he adds, is actually helpful in terms of getting employees to alter their behavior and is another reason why thecommunications campaign should be conducted year-round.

The communications effort should also utilize different types of media, such as podcasts and videos — although some formats won’t be well suited for certain groups of employees. Construction workers, for example, may not have access to email or other forms of electronic communication during the workday. But, to the extent possible, Kwicien recommends using different media types to capture employees’ attention and reinforce the message that this is valuable and worthwhile information that they are receiving.

Consistency also pays off. “When you go down this path, you start seeing employees getting accustomed to the idea that ‘Oh, it’s the first of the month. I’m going to be getting some information about our benefits program,’ ” Kwicien explains. “That makes it easier to grab their attention and prepare them ahead of time for any changes to their benefits program that might be coming.”