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January 20, 2017
Employees’ benefits knowledge, perceived versus actual

Good news and bad news came from the 2016 Guardian Workplace Benefits Study, released last fall. The trick is figuring out how to use the information in shaping your employee benefits strategy—and in particular, how to communicate it.

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Closing the Gap, the 4th Annual Workplace Benefits Study from The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, revealed a significant disparity between what employees think they know as compared to what they actually know about their benefits. Eighty percent of working Americans, according to the study, believe they have a very good understanding of their benefits; that’s the good news. In reality, just under half of them actually do.

This survey included a quiz of 10 questions about benefits coverage and terminology. One in five workers who participated scored an “F.” In fact, according to the study, 25% of employees admit that their choice of benefits is more of a guessing game than an educated decision.

On its face this information seems discouraging. However, a deeper look at the study reveals opportunity. Here are a few we uncovered:

Study finding: The study shows that only 17% of employers believe their employees understand the monetary value of the benefits they receive.

Opportunity: Benefits provide protection against risk. At the same time, they are an integral part of compensation. If employees don’t really know the cost of their benefits, they will have a hard time appreciating the value benefits provide.

If your employees don’t know what you’re expending—in time, effort, and money—perhaps it’s time to educate them. Consider creating total rewards statements showing the value of all of the benefits you provide.

Study finding: Nearly three in four employees who work with a financial advisor say they are highly confident about selecting their benefits, compared to 58% of those who don’t work with an advisor.

Opportunity: This suggests the value of one-on-one access to a financial professional may extend further than the employee’s retirement plan. Overall financial wellness may be impacted, by giving the employee someone with whom they can clarify important concepts about their other benefits.

Many 401(k) providers provide access to financial advisory services through the plan, as do financial wellness providers, often on a participant-paid basis. Once you’ve found someone to provide these services, be sure to communicate the program and its value to employees. The provider is likely to have such materials already available.

Study finding: Less than half (47%) of employees say their employer does a good job of educating them about their benefits and how to use them—and that’s down from two thirds of employees just 2 years ago.

Opportunity: Step back from your current benefits communication strategy and rethink everything. The New Year is an ideal time to begin if your open enrollment happens in the fall, because you have months to prepare. Define a new strategy, including key concepts and messages. If you need help, ask your providers for direction and materials.

Ongoing communication and employee loyalty

But open enrollment isn’t the only time to communicate. Gene Lanzoni, assistant vice president of Thought Leadership for Group and Worksite Markets at Guardian, says that message reinforcement throughout the year is important.

“At open enrollment, workers typically spend 90%+ of their time focused on their medical enrollment options and decisions and they gloss over other key benefits that could spare them/their families from financial hardship should tragedy unexpectedly strike (like a serious injury or illness, loss of income, or premature death),” he says. “The more benefits an employer offers, the more important it is to develop an ongoing communication and education strategy.”

Helping employees appreciate their benefits can be a key to loyalty, and therefore a key to retention. The Guardian study found that 75% of workers who place a high value on their company’s benefits want to stay with their employer for at least 5 years, compared to 53% of workers who place a lower value on their benefits. Yet, employees who don’t really understand their benefits may not value them highly.

What employees want

The study gave workers an opportunity to weigh in on how their benefits enrollment experience could be improved, asking them what elements would help them the most when learning about and enrolling in their benefits. Their top suggestion was more benefit choices and greater coverage. Clear language and expert guidance were also near the top of the list.

Notably, employees said they want personalized information and recommendations based on their individual age, life stage, lifestyle, or financial situation, as well as online support tools, including interactive media, that could help educate and engage them in the enrollment process. Lanzoni believes this reflects the increasing presence of Millennials in the workforce along with ever more responsibility for benefits on employees’ shoulders.

“In the past 5 years, mainly as a result of the Affordable Care Act, employers increasingly are offering voluntary or employee-paid benefits to their workforce,” Lazoni says. “While these benefits can provide valuable insurance protection and fill financial gaps for many households, working Americans are bearing more of the financial and decision-making responsibility than ever before.

"Previously, employers made all or most of the decisions regarding which medical, dental, life insurance or disability insurance was being provided; employees had few decisions to make. Now, even when the employer is contributing, the options are more complex and employees have more skin in the game—for example, high deductible health plans. Understanding how a Health Savings Account works so that workers properly fund it can make all the difference should a large medical bill hit early in the plan year before the deductible has been met.

"Our ‘Closing the Gap’ research brief demonstrates that the better employees understand their benefits, the more confident they feel in their decisions and the better they feel about their benefits in general, and that can even translate to more positive feelings about their employer.”

Dave Mahder, vice president and chief marketing officer of Group and Worksite Markets at Guardian, agrees. “Today,” he says, “working Americans want greater access to insurance benefits via the workplace. But more choice requires more effective benefits communication and decision-support tools that meet the needs of increasingly diverse groups.

"It is critical for all employees, and notably [M]illennials, to fully grasp how benefits like medical supplemental health and disability insurance can work together to provide the financial protection they need. An effective benefits enrollment experience adds significant value for working Americans, as well as their employers.”

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