By Mark McGraw

Recent research shows a majority of companies struggle with communicating benefits information to employees on a year-round basis. Experts urge HR leaders to incorporate the technology and tools at their disposal to make communication strategies more successful, and to document their efforts to ensure consistency. 

HR professionals know that a healthy workforce generally equates to a more productive workforce. And, HR professionals know they need to consistently encourage healthy behaviors among employees. Actually driving this important message home on a regular basis, however, seems easier said than done.

A recent Benz Communication survey of 298 benefits professionals finds less than one-third of employers communicating with employees throughout the year about benefits program information, despite nearly 80 percent of respondents citing “getting employees engaged year-round” as one of their biggest challenges.

Economics and antiquated approaches are two of the biggest culprits behind breakdowns in benefits communication, says Jennifer Benz, founder and CEO of Benz Communications, headquartered in San Francisco.

“Part of the issue is bandwidth and capacity. Benefits teams have been trimmed back while their responsibilities get bigger and bigger,” she says. “You have large organizations with small teams responsible for all aspects of benefits — regulatory, compliance and communication.

“You also have a lot of companies still using old tools that make it expensive and more difficult to manage communication,” Benz continues. “This kind of connects to the bandwidth issue, and makes communicating year-round impossible. But if organizations transition to new tools like social media, blogs and websites, they could better manage ongoing communication.”

For example, many organizations still rely on print newsletters and/or brochures to relay benefits-related information to employees, she says. “Some companies still feel that individuals can’t rely on online channels if they don’t have computer access during the day. But that’s just not true. Print newsletters are expensive and take time to put together. And, the same can be said of brochures and employee meetings as well. Trying to orchestrate them takes a lot of time. These channels are viable, and can be used to complement more modern methods, but they require a lot more resources.”

Creating a website outside the company’s firewall that includes video and other multimedia resources is just one relatively simple example of how embracing technology can aid benefits communication, Benz continues.

“These tools just make the message easier to understand and more accessible. Benefits managers have been focusing on communication, but there’s still a big gap between the way benefits communication works and the rest of the world communicates.”

But, however successful your efforts in getting employees to read benefits materials — in print and/or online ? may be the challenge of getting employees engaged in health benefits programs remains, says Helen Darling, president and CEO of the Washington-based National Business Group on Health.

“People have always done very little related to their benefits until a problem arises or when they are required to actively enroll in plans,” says Darling. “Inertia tends to be one of the most powerful forces in health benefits.”

To spur employees into action, employers “have to do a number of things,” she says, “such as . . . paying employees through reduced premiums or money into accounts to encourage engagement.

“And, more effective, targeted and clever communication can help ensure more success. HR can evaluate what they’ve done in the past, segment their populations, target communications to them, use diverse approaches and track which methods and messages are most effective.”

The study does suggest some movement on this front, with 56 percent of participants reporting the effectiveness of their benefits-communication efforts has improved during the last three years.

“While it may not always feel like it, we’re at a very exciting time for HR and benefits communication,” says Jim Hoff, principal at Aon Hewitt’s communication practice in Chicago.

“The role of effective communication is more important than ever, as organizations need to get their people healthy and productive, and need to show an increasing return on the investments they’re making in people and benefits programs,” says Hoff. “Plus, there are more and better tools and tactics at our disposal to truly market benefits programs and drive new behaviors.”

Despite making strides, however, nearly half (45 percent) of survey respondents indicate they still aren’t satisfied with their current communication strategies, with another 28 percent describing themselves as “ambivalent” about their approach.

First and foremost, successful benefits-communication strategies should be comprehensive, and not just a calendar of benefits-related activities, says Hoff.

“HR leaders and benefits communicators can ask questions like, ‘What are the goals of the business and HR overall, and how can communication efforts drive behaviors that will achieve those goals? How can we best segment and target our audience to ensure we’re delivering the right messages to the right people via the right channel at the right time? And how can we best use the channels and technologies available in a multichannel approach — traditional web and email, mobile sites, text messaging and very targeted use of print?’ ”

Beyond using the technology and tools at HR’s disposal, communication plans should start with understanding the three-to-five year strategic priorities of the business — healthcare cost management, growth by acquisition, improving productivity and customer service, and attracting and retaining talent, for example, says Hoff.

“Associated with each of these priorities are one- to two-year HR outcomes,” he continues, “with a focus on measurable return and a few outcomes that are aggressive but achievable. From there, a communication strategy can be tied to those outcomes.

Within each of these focus areas, the strategy should address the key messages for each critical audience as well as stakeholders and opinion leaders within the organization, says Hoff. An effective approach should also include what he describes as a “multi-channel blend of push and pull communication, so that busy employees get the information — and motivation — they need while having access to additional information when they want it. And, on top of all this should be a relentless focus on making it easy and relevant.”

The entire strategy should be documented as well, in order to track and measure consistency and progress throughout the year, adds Benz.

“Without having some sort of documented strategy, you can’t tell if what you’re doing is effective,” she says. “I think HR leaders can make this a priority within their organizations, and can elevate the role of benefits to something that’s critical to business, rather than just being thought of as a necessary administrative function.”