Typically, employees think about their benefits two times: when they are first hired and the day before benefits elections are due. This year, however, things are very different. According to recent research from Voya Financial, 71% of employees plan to spend more time reviewing their voluntary benefits this year compared with last. The reason for the change is simple: COVID-19.
COVID-19 Driving Increased Interest in Voluntary Benefits
“There has been a clear focus within the last six months from both employers, as well as employees to think more thoroughly about their benefits,” says Chase Ambrosia, Senior Benefits Consultant at OneDigital. I had a chance to speak with him about the situation recently.
The pandemic has a lot of employees wondering, “What sort of coverage do I have if I get COVID-19? Is my hospitalization going to be covered? Is my test going to be covered?” says Ambrosia. He adds, “Those seem to be a lot of the concerns of folks, especially those that have been affected by the pandemic in the last four to six months in terms of their real-life scenarios.”
There are a lot of factors, but Ambrosia says, “At the end of the day, a lot of people don’t know how COVID-19 will affect them and their family, and that’s the reason why they’re putting a lot more thought into their benefits and making sure they have proper coverage in the event that something happens.”
There is a big difference between what people say they will do and what will actually happen. I asked Ambrosia if he thought employees would follow through with their intentions and truly engage their benefits before and during elections. “I do think so,” he said, indicating that many organizations he works with are actively engaging their employees over benefits to help meet their desire to understand them.
Pandemic-related trends have also been combining with other trends over the last few years. For example, Ambrosia has noticed a change in how employers approach benefits. He noticed that just a few years ago, “you [had] some employers that would only offer core benefits because that’s what employees wanted.” He adds that has changed, noting that “more and more employers are realizing that a portion of their demographics like to look at other benefits that may be affordable to them on a voluntary basis. I think overall employers are looking to make sure that they’re rounding out their benefits.” In other words, organizations that used to use one-size-fits-all benefits are finding a lot of engagement in more customizable benefits offerings, especially now.
An Unprecedented Opportunity
As I intimated in the introduction, benefits are rarely top of mind for employees. In fact, the yearly elections are often the only time employees engage with their benefits at all. At the same time, it is well known that when employees use their benefits efficiently, it drives value for employees and employers alike. This renewed interest in voluntary benefits offers a potential opportunity for HR.
But how do you engage employees? As long as there have been voluntary employee benefits, engagement has always been a problem. Low employee engagement leads to poor return on investment (ROI). The road to great benefits engagement is paved with good communication, a critical but often misunderstood activity. And that is still true: Even with an interested employee base, you still need to have a solid communication plan so they can understand what options they have, what they might need, and how to configure them.
Some organizations are in a good place, according to Ambrosia. He says, “I would say a majority of employers currently use enrollment systems and have pretty good communication.” But that leaves a lot of organizations that don’t have an enrollment system playing catch-up. And catch up they must.
“Employers will be responsible for ensuring their employees are educated consumers of benefits,” says Alok Deshpande, CEO of SmartPath. He adds, “This year’s open enrollment process will be unlike any other due to COVID-19’s dramatic impact on remote working, the economy and health and wellness. It’s up to employers to guide employees through this process with actionable tips and support.”
And with benefit elections around the corner, the time to get started with your communication plan is now. As Deshpande points out, “Employees understand their benefits the best when they need to use them—and, generally, that’s too late. Accordingly, it’s important the employers invest in education and tools that make sure employees clearly understand what’s covered and not covered in their package and what they can do to save for any out of pocket costs.”
Communication Tips We have written extensively on benefits communications. You can learn more about pandemic-related communication strategies here. There are also good communications strategies toward the bottom of this article. Finally, I’ll leave you with some parting words from Deshpande: “Employers will be responsible for ensuring their employees are educated consumers of benefits.” It’s up to you, HR, to make sure this happens. Good luck!