2013 the Year for Benefits Communication

January 25, 2013 (PLANSPONSOR.com) –With so many changes on the horizon, benefits communication should get more attention in 2013. 

Companies are refining their benefits strategies to keep pace with health insurance and retirement reforms ahead, a still-uncertain economy and an unstable workforce, according to the 2012 “Inside Benefits Communication Survey Report” from Benz Communications, a human resources and benefits communication strategy firm. These changes mean 2013 could be the year for benefits communication to “get the recognition it deserves,” said Jennifer Benz, founder and chief strategist of the firm.

“I think there will be big, big improvements made this year,” she told PLANSPONSOR. “Companies are making additional investments; there’s just a lot more work that needs to be done.”

Benz outlined the top three reasons 2013 will prove a valuable year for benefits communication:

HR Strategy Will Require It 

According to Mercer, the five biggest priorities for employer-sponsored health plans this year are: 1) preparing for 2014 health care reform requirements; 2) evaluating the level of benefits provided; 3) determining the role of exchanges in health benefits strategy; 4) ramping up health management (wellness) efforts; and 5) assessing new care delivery models. Each of these priorities demands ongoing communication, Benz explained. 

HR traditionally communicates by piling on information during open enrollment and providing only sparse information the rest of the year, but employees need ongoing useful information, she said. Online platforms like blogs, for example, are a great way to provide engaging nuggets of information to employees. “We think of [social media] as a very practical way to get more information out frequently at a lower cost,” Benz said.

Benz’s survey found that only 38% of employers provide benefits information outside their firewall on the Internet; just 29% communicate with employees year round; only 10% use social media for benefits communication; and, despite the growing number of mobile Internet users, only 28% of employers are using mobile tools of any kind to communicate benefits.

Employees Will Demand It  

More employers are moving to consumer-driven health plans, results-based wellness programs, and increasing employee-paid premiums to reduce their benefits costs and create engaged consumers, Benz said.

As these employer-driven financial and participation requirements increase—and financial concerns elevate—employees and family members will demand better resources. "Employees deserve better and, if they haven't already, this will be the year they start demanding it,” Benz said.

Execs Will Understand the Need 

Despite all the reasons why benefits communication should receive more attention, executives remain hesitant to allocate a bigger investment to benefits communication, Benz said. This year, HR must emphasize to company executives that in order for benefits to be successful, employees must be engaged.  And in order for employees to be engaged, benefit communication efforts must be ramped up. “It really is such a small investment in the overall plan cost,” Benz said.

According to the survey, 68% of companies are getting by on communication budgets of less than $25,000 a year. Large companies with 5,000 or more employees can create “huge results” with an investment in benefit communications that is less than 1% of the total benefits budget, Benz added.

In 2013, more than in previous years, Benz said, HR and benefits managers should expect to hear their execs asking questions such as: 

             Can we show a return on investments (ROI) in health benefits?

             How do we lower our health spending while keeping turnover low?

             What are we doing to make health care expenses more predictable?

             How will we respond to reform without damaging employee morale?

 

Benefits communicators will not have good answers for any of these questions without effective employee education and communication, Benz emphasized. “I think that this year, HR really needs to lay out a long-term road map,” she said. This road map should demonstrate to executives how the company will change in response to health care reform and how retirement programs are going to ultimately help both the employees and employer.  

Benz indicated she is concerned that retirement benefits are being put on the backburner because of health care reform. “And that really is a disservice to employees, and it’s going to be damaging to companies long-term,” she said.

Finding the balance between health care and retirement benefits communications will be a challenge because health care demands a lot of attention, according to Benz, but HR should not forget that there is a retirement readiness crisis looming. To balance communications between the two, she suggested integrating multiple messages. For example, messages about wellness can ultimately relate to retirement readiness: Will your retirement funds be spent on health care? How can you prepare now with saving and preventative health measures?

“There’s a very clear road map to making benefits communication successful, and companies can really follow [those] that have done it well and use their formula for success,” Benz concluded.

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