4 shifts in employee benefits that all communicators must understand

This is no longer relegated to the HR department. Get caught up with what you need to know.

The last time your company’s acronym-laden benefits strategy made it across your desk, you may have shoved it aside with little thought or regard. You have medical insurance. You have dental insurance. And you have a savings account.

Anything beyond that only matters to other departments, not yours. Right?

Not anymore. Your company’s benefits strategy—and, more importantly, the outcome—is tied to your role in internal communications or PR in more ways than you know. The national media is putting more attention than ever on employee benefits—while your company is likely asking individuals to do more than ever before. Ignoring the delicate and personal nature of benefits communication puts your company at risk of employee backlash or your next PR headache.

There are four major shifts happening in benefits right now that all communicators need to know about:

1. Health care reform will touch nearly every department in your company for years to come as coverage expands and new communication requirements become law.

2. Wellness programs are getting more aggressive and reaching further into personal space.

3. Few people are prepared for retirement—and changes in 401(k) rules are only going to confuse people more.

4. Year-round communication is the new norm, as benefits communication, and all communication for that matter, competes with Twitter, YouTube and other social media.

Communication is your forte. But benefits communication requires a different approach than typical internal communication. With benefits, you are communicating not only to employees but to their spouses and families. And you are communicating about some very personal issues such as health, finances and emotional well-being.

Health care reform is getting stickier

Your company has already implemented a number of provisions associated with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And more are on the way, with new requirements coming into effect every year. What makes this communication even trickier is that much of what we know today could change. The political climate is anything but stable and the implementation of health care reform depends on future funding as well as countless regulations.

The magnitude of work and uncertainty around it means your internal benefits teams will be facing a complex road. And implementing various provisions will require collaboration among many groups in your company. In addition to the benefits team, legal, finance, payroll and, of course, communications will be critical to success.

As a communicator, you’ll be asked to help craft messaging about big changes and navigate through employee questions and concerns. You’ll also be a voice of reason to help your internal teams stay focused on what matters to employees and their families right now—not what might happen in a few years. And, you’ll be dispelling rumors—both from within your organization and outside. There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation about health care reform and part of your role will be helping to separate fact from fiction.

Wellness programs reaching further than ever

If that’s not enough, you’ll also be asked to help communicate and promote wellness programs, a required effort in controlling health care costs.

A few years ago you might have thought wellness was just on-site gyms and light hearted walking competitions. Wellness, however is getting aggressive—and personal.

More than 75 percent of companies ask employees to take an online health assessment every year, according to Towers Watson’s study. Fifty-two percent ask employees to participate in biometric screenings, according to a PWC survey. And a growing number are linking the results of biometric screenings—not just participation—to incentives.

The dollars at stake are significant. Right now, companies can link 20 percent of the cost of a medical plan, more than $2,000 for most companies, to wellness incentives like those mentioned above, as well as being tobacco-free. In 2014 that number rises to 30 percent.

Employee engagement will be critical as results-based programs become the norm. But it will also be a challenge. Health information is very personal and elicits strong emotional responses. As communicators, you’ll need to clearly explain how the wellness program is connected to the company’s overall benefits strategy, continually reassure employees that their privacy will be protected and the results of any wellness program medical tests will be kept absolutely confidential and plan for any questions and concerns that may arise from employees who may think you are being intrusive.

Mostly, you’ll have to communicate, communicate and communicate. Employers who can tie the health programs with work and the personal factors we call life will have tremendous success.

Employees are not ready for retirement

At the same time, employers have a duty to help their people get ready for their futures. Even though many companies have cut back 401(k) matches, the 401(k) is still key to people saving for their retirement and something every company should be promoting heavily.

Things are about to get more challenging. Starting Jan. 1, 2012, employer-sponsored 401(k) retirement plans will have to communicate fees. The DOL-mandate will require employers to disclose more information about plan and investment costs to workers who invest in 401(k) and other defined contribution retirement plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The idea behind this is to help plan sponsors and beneficiaries make a more accurate assessment when comparing the fees of competing plan providers.

Unfortunately, 71 percent of Americans who have a 401(k) don’t think they pay any fees, according to an AARP study. And, while the fees in a 401(k) are generally much lower than other investments, you don’t want employees to be surprised or suspicious of the plan.

As communicators, you have many challenges ahead of you in getting your employees ready for retirement—while helping clear up uncertainty about fees and other changes in the market. Use every opportunity to remind employees that 401(k)s are still the best deals in town—their financial future and stability is at stake.

Communication no longer happens once a year

Tying all these shifts together is the change in how people talk to each other through social media, mobile devices and other technology. Not only is our news cycle 24/7, now we can access it at home, on the train, in the park, in the car, and every other place imaginable. People are staying connected and in touch continuously.

The gap between how the rest of the world communicates and how companies communicate benefits is growing wider and wider. While early adopters are having tremendous success using social media for benefits communication, companies that don’t update their communication approach risk losing their credibility all together. And, the complex issues we’re dealing with require educating people year round.

Put channels in place that will help you communicate frequently. Start by putting your benefits on a website outside of a firewall. A benefits website on the Internet is the single most important investment you can make that provides easy access to benefits information for employees and family members.

Once your site is built, you can add social media tools, like Twitter and/or a blog; these are the easiest and most cost-effective ways to publish a fresh stream of news and relevant updates. These channels also enable two-way dialog with employees and family members. As a communications pro, you can help your benefits and HR team digest the feedback or questions to create new content and evaluate how your programs are working.

The changes and complexity in employee benefits can be overwhelming. But, a strategic approach to communication can make these changes a force for good within your company—and for your employees and their families.

Jennifer Benz is founder and chief strategist at Benz Communications, a boutique consulting firm that focuses on benefits and strategic HR communication.

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