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Changing the Dynamic of Open Enrollment

Traditionally, employers have viewed open enrollment as an annual opportunity for employees to make positive impact on their total well-being — not just in terms of improving their financial standing, but also to protect themselves from unforeseen events. Yet, few workers actually take full advantage of the occasion and end up fundamentally cheating themselves out of wellness benefits, while employers waste valuable dollars that could potentially strengthen their workforce individually and their organizations as a whole.

Research from employee benefits provider Unum1, revealed that nearly half of U.S. workers (49%) spend, at most, just 30 minutes reviewing their benefits package prior to enrollment. Additional research by financial insurance provider Aflac2, found that 93% of respondents in its study choose the same benefits year after year, regardless of changes in their own circumstances or other influential factors.

The same study identified a clear disconnect in the perception of employers, which for the most part (83%) believe that their workers have a thorough understanding of the benefits they offer. But, 76% of employees instead revealed that there were at least some parts of the available benefits offering they did not understand.

Going back to the Unum study we can see the repercussions of this disconnect, with respondents reporting feeling stressed (21%), confused (22%) and anxious (20%) when enrolling in their benefits. The unfortunate upshot is that the same benefits intended to help improve employee well-being have the potential to become a source of stress. Furthermore, sweeping changes to healthcare, such as those introduced following the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) in 2010, can leave employees and employers alike confused and bewildered by the impact of new legislation.

“There’s lots of research out there that shows that around 70% of employees don’t understand the benefits offered by their employer,” says Daniel LaBroad, president and CEO of Ovation Health & Life Services, a benefits broker based out of Dallas, Texas.

Just 10 to 15 years ago, the approach from visiting benefits consultants was quite different. They could go into an organization and directly engage with the employee on a one-on-one basis and walk them through the benefits, answer any questions and help them make decisions.

“This really made education a hand-holding opportunity, where you could explain the benefits to employees in greater detail and help them understand how to best leverage them for their individual situations.” LaBroad says.

But times have changed and while a one-on-one approach remains the most effective solution to the education challenge, it’s no longer always a viable one. A lot of employees are not in the office every day, or they consistently work remotely from other cities or states. Some industries like manufacturing, retail, and hospitality have shift workers that work hours outside of the typical 9-to-5 workday, making communication difficult. Overall, workers are not getting as much face-to-face interaction as they used to, and the reasons aren’t always office dynamics. If we look at the broad impact of social media and mobile technology, it’s easy to argue that both employers and employees alike are moving away from face-toface interaction on a cultural level too.

“Being able to offer 24/7 support to the workforce is crucial when you have lots of shift workers and rostered staff,” says Robert Sinclair, CEO of London City Airport in the United Kingdom. “In that environment it’s not always easy for people to be able to communicate with each other.”

So, from a business perspective, organizations in every sector are benefitting from, and seeking to take advantage of, new technologies that were developed in the consumer space, and this is changing the way we work. Like in so many areas of our lives, the smartphone is the real agent of change here, even across generations, with 92% of Millennials and 85% of Generation X almost glued to the device3.

The perceived digital dexterity enabled by the smartphone is driven by information intensity and the desire of humans to share and collaborate, as well as the convenience. We’re all used to an on-demand experience in our personal lives — order a movie on Netflix, it plays immediately; order a taxi on Uber, it arrives within minutes; order an item on Amazon, it arrives within the hour. Furthermore, these are our experiences, with many of these services learning from its users to deliver a more relevant and appropriate interaction, and this is something we’re coming to expect from every technology. According to Salesforce, by 2020, 51% of consumers and 75% of business buyers expect companies to be able to anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions4.

When it comes to benefits, employees will turn to their employers as the owner of the employee experience and employers will turn to their specialist suppliers for guidance. Erin Barnhart, benefits and reward manager at MSA Safety Inc., said her Cranberry Township, Pa.-based employer has a robust well-being and benefits program that is outsourced and supported by someone on-site to drive better health for the people and the company.

“We have salespeople who are out on location. We have a wide range of ages in the company with lots of long-timers — people who have been here nearly 40 years,” Barnhart says. “We really try to be inclusive so everyone can participate in the initiatives one way or another.”

As HR leaders know well, humans are unique and have very individual needs, pressures and motivations, even though there are some demographic consistencies. The same is true of the well-being needs of a person as a complex combination of multiple factors. Physical well-being benefits may be of little interest to a fitness enthusiast, but that may change if they are rewarded for maintaining their physical wellness. A parent may not be motivated by discounts and savings on luxury goods but may appreciate benefits that help them make their money go further on everyday items.

Yet despite different motivations and regardless of whether you subscribe to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or Carol Ryff’s dimensions of psychological well-being, there is a common theme in well-being of self-acceptance, personal growth, the ability to cope when things inevitably don’t go our way, our connection with work and home and our sense of mission and purpose.

The World Health Organization defines “health” as more than just the absence of disease and infirmity, but as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.” More recently, Deloitte has taken this definition a step further to encompass the financial concerns affecting an individual’s mental and physical health. The well-being of the human has more holistic requirements and this is why we need a human-centered approach.

It may sound contradictory, but technology has a purpose here. If we draw a parallel with the Employee Assistance space over the years, clinical experts have developed a range of tools to support people using a multitude of modalities. These are tried-and-tested programs that are proven to help the 10% of the employees that seek them out when they reach a time of crisis.

But the question for business leaders now is how can that support be moved upstream to reach the entire workforce proactively and preventatively? To scale to meet the needs of 100% of an organization’s people, technology must play a role. Smartphones help us be more productive, in terms of how we learn, how we communicate, how we do our banking and how we shop. These consumer grade mobile-first user experiences create an environment that is free of friction and meets our every need as quickly and easily as possible.

As employee experience moves away from face-to-face, technology is allowing businesses to reach further when it comes to delivering benefits, while still hand-holding when necessary. The result is a user experience that empowers people and benefits businesses.

It’s well understood that the younger generation looks for interaction when and where they need it, while the older generation still wants that more traditional face-to-face experience. Yet as a status quo this is changing.

“We live in a pretty computer literate society,” says Alastair Macdonald, senior vice president of HR at Nestlé Canada. “People are pretty adaptable and see the power that technology can have. If you see a shift change at our manufacturing facilities, people are walking to their cars or public transport staring at their phones.”

But when it comes to the well-being experience for employees, the story is often different. The HR industry is saturated with point solutions that only focus on a small part of an individual’s well-being. Human Resources is one sector that has fallen behind in terms of adoption of consumer grade technology. HR professionals are often working with outdated tools and information that lack context, as well as being tasked with “keeping the boat steady,” rather than driving change. But if humans are connected by different pillars of well-being, then why aren’t we looking at tackling this in a more unified way — perhaps with a user experience that people love to use and keeps them returning?

As employee experience moves away from face-to-face, technology is allowing businesses to reach further when it comes to delivering benefits, while still hand-holding when necessary. The result is a user experience that empowers people and benefits businesses.

As a specialist who sells workplace benefits, LaBroad has some insight: “Lots of benefits portals are not intuitive and, anyway, getting information into the most-used employee content platforms is key to getting the message out there,” he says. “With a platform like LifeWorks that has a newsfeed and is something that employees are using on a daily basis, you have the perfect opportunity to communicate with people.”

The key is to look at which interface employees are logging into most frequently — is it the benefits portal or something like LifeWorks? If it’s the latter, it makes sense to use that as your entry point to push out engagement and education to employees.

Furthermore, the research suggests that engaged and educated employees are good for business. Deloitte’s Josh Bersin, one of the foremost experts on HR technology and employee well-being, noted in the "2018 Global Human Capital Trends" survey5 that as the definition of well-being expands, organizations now see well-being not just as an employee benefit or responsibility, but as a business performance strategy.

Tellingly, 43% of Deloitte survey respondents believed that well-being reinforces their organization’s mission and vision, 60% reported that it improves employee retention, and 61% said that it improves employee productivity and bottom-line business results.

Indeed, Chester Elton, an author and workplace culture expert, notes that 20 years of research has shown that the financial performance of organizations with high employee engagement is 44% higher than those with low engagement. The reason? People who are engaged at work are more likely to be happy in their personal lives, and healthier, happier employees are more productive.

“It’s the people that make a culture and those people need to be engaged, enabled and energized, because ultimately, the better the culture, the better the customer service. The happier the customers, the more successful the business,” says Elton.

If culture is a key ingredient for a successful business, then communication is a fundamental part of culture. By using the most popular employee communication channels to distribute benefits information, you can successfully engage employees year-round, and not just at open enrollment. The discussion about benefits and well-being then becomes part of daily life, and people naturally become more engaged. The result? A more educated workforce that feels more valued, loved and respected.


1. Nearly half of U.S. workers spend 30 minutes or less reviewing benefits before enrollment, Unum finds

2. 2018 Aflac WorkForces Report

3. Millennials stand out for their technology use, but older generations also embrace digital life — Pew Research

4. See how AI is reshaping customer relationships

5. 2018 Global Human Capital Trends

Jamie True Jamie True is chief digital officer at LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell.

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