Benefits Communication Growing in Importance and Difficulty

This article was published on February 25, 2016 by the International Foundation of Employee Benefits, written by Neil Mrkvicka.

Half of all organizations responding to the Benefits Communication Survey say the number of participant questions they receive regarding benefits has increased in the past two years. Adding to the frustration, organizations identify their top challenge with benefits communication as participants not opening/reading materials. Despite challenges, benefits communication remains a high priority for most respondents.

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A total of 341 organizations of a variety of sizes, industries/jurisdictions and regions across the United States and Canada participated in the survey. Key findings include:

What Is the Current State of Benefits Communication?

ben com survey 1Nearly two in five surveyed organizations (38%) have budgets specifically devoted to benefits communication, and one-quarter of these organizations (25%) likely will increase their budgets next year. A few organizations shared the size of their benefits communications budgets, which ranged from 3% to 10% of the total benefits budget.

Organizations are more likely to handle benefits communication in-house than to outsource, and more than one-third (35%) have staff specifically dedicated to benefits communications. Organizations are more likely to outsource via consultants, administrators and vendors (31%) compared with attorneys (6%). Large organizations are more likely than small organizations to have budgets and staff specifically dedicated to benefits communication.

The most common benefits communication topics are:

  • Retirement benefits education (74%)
  • Health care benefits literacy (74%)
  • Wellness and mental health (72%)

The most frequently used benefits communications channels include:

  • Printed mail to homes (89%)
  • E-mail (73%)
  • Print distributed on site (69%)
  • Internal websites (66%)
  • External websites (58%)
  • Videos (29%)
  • Social media (23%)
  • Texts (10%)
  • Robocalls (9%)
  • Games (7%)

Two-thirds of all organizations (67%) reach out to retirees with benefits communication, 53% engage spouses/dependents and 52% personalize communication materials. The most common benefits communications strategies organizations use are simplifying complicated content (85%), year-round communication (73%), reaching out to retirees with benefits communication (67%), leveraging word of mouth (63%), engaging spouses/dependents (53%) and personalizing communication materials (52%). Less than half of all organizations customize communication benefits to multiple generations (49.6%), measure the effectiveness of communications (43%), communicate by life stage (41%) or communicate in multiple languages (31%).

What Are the Goals and Challenges?

ben com survey 2Survey findings reveal that 65% of organizations regard benefits communication as a high priority (28% very high and 36% somewhat high). However, the amount of time spent on various benefits communication efforts doesn’t always match up with organizations’ priorities. For example, 89% of organizations report helping participants understand and use their benefits as a top goal, but only 70% say that effort occupies most of their time. Fifty-two percent cite getting individuals to understand the value of benefits as a top goal, but 48% say it takes most of their time. Helping participants make smarter personal health and/or finance decisions is the third most cited goal (49%), with 30% saying it occupies most of their time. Data show how reactively responding to participant questions (57%) seems to be stealing time from organizations’ more proactive benefits communication goals.

ben com survey 3Each of the top challenges with benefits communication is centered on participants: Participants do not open/read materials (80%), don’t understand materials (49%) and do not perceive value in their benefits (31%). (Each is cited far more frequently than internal challenges such as benefits staff time, resources or expertise.) Large organizations are more likely to say participants not opening/reading communication materials is a top challenge. U.S. organizations are far more likely to view complying with mandated benefits communication as a top goal, challenge and consumer of time, compared with Canadian organizations.

ben com survey 4Few organizations believe their participants have a very high (3%) or somewhat high (16%) level of benefits understanding. Half (49%) say the number of participant questions regarding benefits has increased in the past two years, compared with just 7% reporting a decrease in questions. U.S. organizations are more likely to say the number of participant benefit questions has increased in the last two years compared with those from Canada. Some of the most common benefits topics about which organizations receive participant questions are the Affordable Care Act, health reimbursement arrangements and health savings accounts, plan design changes, accessing retirement funds and health care eligibility, coverage and costs.

The International Foundation deployed Benefits Communication Survey in December 2015 to member organizations across the U.S. and Canada. For a more in-depth analysis and data on which communication approaches are working the best check out the full results here.

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