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4 Ways to Make Your Employees’ Benefits Amnesia a Distant Memory This Year

Mark Rader Benefits Communication, Open Enrollment Communication

How to Cure Amnesia Jan 2017 copySome 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-great 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, recipes, how exactly to use the old coffee machine at our new job and…employee benefits information.

Yes, employees – even the fantastic, intelligent ones at your company – have already forgotten a whole lot of what they learned about some pretty basic aspects of their benefits during the open enrollment period you just had a few months ago. And they’ll keep forgetting things you tell them throughout the year. (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 within 24 hours (!) of us first learning it.)

For my purposes here, I’ll call this phenomenon of forgetting, as it applies to benefits communication, ‘benefits amnesia.’

According to a study we commissioned a few years ago, ‘ALEX Asks: What Employees Think About Your Benefits Communication,’ employees forget about – or are never totally aware 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 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 come up or when the structure of their plans changes year to year.

So, now that we’ve identified the problem, what can HR departments like yours do about it? Here are a few ideas.

1. Some time in January or February, create–and email a link to–a FAQ page that answers the top 10 questions your employees are likely to have about their benefits this year

Q: Why a FAQ page instead of an email explaining things in a series of long paragraphs?

A: People like white space. Also, people like receiving information in a question and answer format because the content is easy to scan, generally written in a conversational, plain-spoken way, and gives them exactly what they want: answers.

2. Going forward, 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, say, a monthly benefits newsletter, or selected 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.

(Want a communication schedule to follow for the three months leading up to open enrollment, specifically? Download our free Ultimate Open Enrollment Communications Playbook.)

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

If you want your employees to truly digest the important benefits information you send (and prevent their benefits amnesia altogether), you first need to make sure they read what you’re sharing all the way through.

So…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 mallet at home. But a little subtle, natural humor can go a long way toward engaging employees and then keeping them engaged.

4. Consider offering your employees a plan refresher product once the new plan year begins.

Got employees using an HDHP for the first time? Interactive explainer tools like ALEX can refresh their memory on how their new plan works once they actually start using health care in the new year AND offer practical tips on paying for services, price-shopping for prescriptions, using HSAs, and more. You want to help your people avoid what happened to one of our employees and his wife (true story!) at the beginning of his plan year.

So, in a nutshell: Simpler, friendlier, more regular and more personalized communications can go a long way toward beating benefits 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.