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Four tips for better benefit plan communications

Originally posted by Dani McCauley on the EBN blog.

It’s make it or break it time for employee benefit plans, suggests guest blogger Dani McCauley. She has four suggestions for better communication. Do you agree? Share your thoughts in the comments. —Andrea Davis, Managing Editor

Not to be an alarmist, but there is a convergence of events and trends that will make or break the success of many employers’ benefit plans this year. However, a spot-on communications plan will smooth the road ahead, and can even turn risks into opportunities.

Position changes properly

With the biggest health care reform provisions coming into effect in 2014, many employers are making an array of not-so-subtle changes to their benefit offerings. Such changes could range from streamlining down to fewer plan options, to significant premium differentials for wellness participation.

Whether the changes are seen as positive, negative or neutral depends on how well they’re communicated. After all, employees who are satisfied with their company benefits are more likely to be loyal to their employer, according to a recent study by MetLife. The study found that while only 42% of employees in the U.S. would strongly recommend their employer, those who do feel this way are three times more likely to be satisfied with their benefits.

Key takeaway: Taking the time to think through tough benefit messages and position changes in the best possible light will pay dividends.

An effective wellness program represents the holy grail for group health plan sponsors seeking to actually change the health risks in their employee populations (thus mitigating costs and increasing worker productivity). Notice I said an “effective” wellness program. In order for such programs to be effective, they must be communicated in a way that helps employees to internalize the lifestyle changes they are expected to make.

For example, sending a quarterly newsletter with diet and exercise tips is likely insufficient to spark meaningful behavioral changes. Such a program is likely to succeed best if kicked-off with in-person meetings and frequent communications, possibly through a company intranet or in some other medium that keeps guidance, goals and incentives front and center for employees on a daily basis.

Key takeaway: Don’t invest in a wellness program unless you’re willing to back it up with an intensive communications plan.

Compliance confusion
Health care reform brings with it a host of new communication requirements designed to ensure that employees have equal access to benefits information, know their opt-out rights, understand the plans being offered, and more.

To take one example, the Summary of Benefits and Coveragerequirement just made benefit communications a little more complicated. While the SBC format is rigid and proscribed, employers must comply with the form’s required phrasing. But don’t rely on the SBC as your primary benefit communication document. Employers still need to communicate their overall benefits offering in a cohesive fashion. From health to retirement, your company benefits need to be explained in a way that resonates with your corporate culture, ideally unifying the entire plan behind a meaningful and relevant theme.

Key takeaway: Don’t abandon your traditional benefit communications materials. The SBC requirement is strictly an add-on.

Multi, Multi-Media
With so many options for communicating with employees, it’s important to consider what will work best for your corporate culture. If employees are spread far and wide at multiple locations, video tutorials can be a great way to reach out and educate employees who might otherwise feel disconnected at open enrollment time and year-round. Companies that are really tech-savvy might also consider social media or mass text messaging to bolster their efforts. But for other organizations where employees have limited access to the Internet throughout the day, call-center assistance might still be the best way to keep from placing certain groups of employees at a disadvantage.

Key takeaway: When it comes to communications logistics, let practicality be your guide.

Dani McCauley is senior vice president of marketing with Univers Workplace Solutions.

What methods are you using to communicate your benefits plan? Are the messages any different than in past years? Share your thoughts in the comments.