Cost of communication

Employers who fail to communicate their healthcare benefits are making an expensive mistake says Sam Barrett

An effective communication programme can significantly increase the value of an employer’s healthcare benefits, and save time and aggravation further down the line.

Yet employers who spend months approving benefit recommendations will often devote very little time to promoting them to employees.

“Communication is essential,” says James Glover, member services director at cash plan provider Healthsure. “If employees don’t use or appreciate a benefit, it will be taken away when the employer reviews the package. You lose the sale and maybe also the client.”

Some healthcare benefits are much easier to promote to employees than others. Cash plans are a prime example of this. “It’s there to be used,” says Glover. “As plans cover day-to-day healthcare such as dental check-ups and glasses, every employee should be able to claim at least once a year.”

Medical insurance, although hopefully not offering the claims frequency of a cash plan, is also highly regarded by employees and often appears in the top three most wanted benefits.

Benefits such as income protection, critical illness and life assurance can be more difficult to promote. With these, little consideration is given to the value of the benefit as employees hope they won’t need to claim.

In an attempt to address this, some of the group risk insurers have introduced additional benefits to help ensure employees value their benefits before they are unable to work, or die. For example several insurers, including Legal & General, Norwich Union and Canada Life, have added employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to their group income protection plans to make benefits more visible to staff.

Canada Life has also added the ‘Best Doctors’ service to its plans. This enables an employee to access medical advice and a second opinion from a leading medical specialist. “This is a really valuable service as it can be used by the employee’s family as well as the employee. It can also be promoted more easily than group income protection, with wallet cards and posters provided by us,” says Colin Micklewright, head of group income protection business development at Canada Life.

There’s also confusion about what benefits are being provided, especially when it comes to income protection. The insurance industry hasn’t done itself any favours either, as Micklewright explains: “Income protection hasn’t been particularly well communicated in the past and the various names it’s been given have made it even more confusing.”

Thankfully for those striving to promote it, the insurers have ditched names such as ‘long-term disability’ and ‘permanent health’ insurance and plumped for ‘income protection’.

Although there are differences between the healthcare benefits, the most effective means of promoting them is through face-to-face sessions.

For instance, in employee benefit research conducted by AIG UK Benefits, employee inductions and one-to-ones with HR managers were seen by employers as the best communication channels. Employees also valued presentations from their line manager, HR manager or a representative from the benefit provider, with these methods in second place behind the company intranet.

For the providers it’s a simple message. “Face-to-face wins every time,” says Glover. He encourages intermediaries to arrange presentations in the workplace to promote benefits. “We are happy to go to the company, with the intermediary or alone, to present to employees. This could be a formal presentation or someone sitting in the canteen chatting to employees about the plan,” he adds.

Additionally, many of the providers will attend workplace wellness days, often offering health-related assessments or activities such as a blood pressure or cholesterol check.

In addition to the personal touch, employees also appreciate written information about their benefits. This can include the staff handbook, product literature, details on the intranet, an article in the company newsletter and inserts in payslips.

Terry Pegg, head of sales at AIG UK Benefits, recommends being creative. “Bringing benefits to life, rather than just publishing a benefits booklet that some employees will never read, can raise the profile of benefits significantly,” he explains. This could be done through a variety of methods including case studies to illustrate how the benefits work, and quirky giveaways such as a toothbrush to promote the dental cover on a cash plan.

Again the providers are eager to help. “We can put together wordings for employers to include in their staff handbooks and so on and will help wherever possible,” says Micklewright.

Another particularly effective way to promote a benefits package is through a total reward statement. These detail the employee’s total remuneration package, including any benefits, and put a financial value on them.

Wayne Pontin, development director at Jelf Wellbeing adds: “It’s a powerful tool. An employer can build their own total reward statement, but we offer an online package, ‘mybenefits’, which does all the calculations for them.”

The software can be integrated with the payroll system so values are always up-to-date and, because it is a personalised statement, it can also include details of benefits the employee does not take. Pontin adds that these statements are most effective with larger companies, working well with companies with 100 or more employees.

As well as promoting the benefits to employees, it’s important not to overlook other parts of the company. “It’s essential to explain the benefits to the HR department,” says Wojciech Dochan, head of commercial marketing at Unum. “If they don’t understand the benefits they’ll never be able to communicate them to the employees.”

To improve the effectiveness of a benefits package it also needs to be regularly promoted.

“Many organisations have a surge of communication activity when first implementing a benefits scheme but once the launch is over the momentum and energy can be lost,” says Pegg. “Products and packages need to be regularly reviewed and continually communicated to employees to ensure a successful and continued take up of benefits.”

He recommends using line managers to keep the benefits message alive. “Line managers have a direct relationship with employees and can feedback their views on the healthcare benefit offerings,” he explains.

For example, employees might tell their line manager they’re not sure what’s available or that they’re confused about using the benefit. This can be fed back to the employer so improvements can be made in the communication of the benefits.

Although communicating benefits will boost their value, there are potential pitfalls to watch out for.

“One of the dangers with communicating is you can promise either too much or too little,” says Pontin. “For example, if you tell employees their medical insurance is totally comprehensive they might believe they’re covered for everything health-related when it’s only for acute medical conditions. Think about what’s being said and make sure it’s not ambiguous.”

It’s also important not to inadvertently draw employees’ attention to the benefits they don’t receive. Pontin says this can happen especially where benefits are promoted electronically. “If certain benefits are only available to some employees make sure this is either clear or hidden. It can cause animosity if they see great benefits that they can’t receive.”

Sometimes employers prefer not to promote their healthcare benefits. Micklewright says this can be the case with income protection. “Some employers are reluctant to promote their income protection plan as they fear employees will go off sick so they can claim it,” he says.

The government’s welfare reform agenda may change this, as Dochan explains: “Come October when many of the new measures such as the Work Capability Assessment and Employment and Support Alllowance come into force, the benefits of working for an employer with income protection will become clearer. Those employers offering it should feel they can use it as a recruitment and retention tool.”

Advice can be an issue too, especially where a benefit is voluntary, part of a flexible benefits scheme or the employee has an option to upgrade their cover. However Pegg believes this isn’t necessarily an issue. “If a one-to-one approach of communicating benefits with a line manager is chosen, the manager will be able to provide employees with the relevant information or point them in the right direction,” he explains. “A strong communications package should ensure all areas are covered.”

Colin Micklewright: “Income protection hasn’t been well-communicated”

How voluntary benefits are perceivedBetween November 2007 and January 2008 AIG UK Benefits conducted a survey, asking employers and employees for their views on voluntary benefits. It’s key findings include: