After all, studies showed that the majority of employees typically spent less than 30 minutes each year choosing benefits.
Yet, in the past few years, employee benefits have taken on a new significance for employees. A weakening of traditional social and corporate safety nets (i.e., uncertainty surrounding the future viability of Social Security and a shift away from defined benefit pension plans in favor of defined contribution plans) has put greater personal responsibility on employees when it comes to selecting benefits and securing their financial future.
"One of the things we're excited about is that, based on our research, employees seem to be interested in spending more time looking over benefits choices during open enrollment," says Bill Mullaney, president of MetLife's Institutional Business, adding that MetLife has always been surprised at how little time employees typically spend on it, given that benefits are the foundation of any good financial plan.
"But our research shows that employees report a greater interest in benefits, especially when it comes to making the most of their options," he adds, alluding to the recent MetLife Open Enrollment Survey. On the downside, the research shows, some employees remain confused and frustrated by the amount of complicated information they often receive during open enrollment, which, for some, may have been a key driver for past apathy.
"Today, they are more interested in open enrollment, but with that, they also want an easier-to-understand experience," Mullaney says. "This data provides benefits advisors a wide-open opportunity to add value to their relationship with employers looking for ways to get there."
In fact, in its just-released 2008 Open Enrollment Survey, MetLife uncovered some interesting open enrollment-related facts for employers and benefits advisors to consider:
-- Employers may be feeling pushback from employees who are unhappy with the status quo when it comes to open enrollment. For example, only 23 percent of employees are very satisfied with their benefits during open enrollment, and of employees "not confident" with their benefits decisions during that process, more than half (54 percent) hold their employer or HR department responsible, 45 percent of employees blame themselves. Interestingly, among Gen Yers, the percentage blaming employers or HR departments was, at 63 percent, particularly high.
-- As employees are asked to fund more of their benefits, through "consumer-driven" programs, many want to be treated more like consumers, primarily via more benefit choices and better access to information that they can easily understand. For example, when asked what their HR department could do to make the open enrollment process easier, roughly one-quarter of employees said either "provide more information about benefits" (23 percent), "present benefits information in an easier to understand format" (25 percent) or "offer guidelines or instructions for 'people like me'" (24 percent).
-- Employees need information to better comprehend benefits offerings. Many report having trouble fully understanding certain products.
For example, 26 percent report not grasping annuities, while 21 percent have problems understanding legal services plans and 18 percent feel the same about critical illness insurance.
Bottom line: the MetLife research found that some prevalent emotions among employees during the benefits selection process are confusion and frustration, with over one-third (37 percent) reporting those feelings. Among GenY, almost half (46 percent) had these emotions. In particular, GenY craves information--more than half (53 percent) thoroughly read the package of materials sent out by their employer, almost 10 percent more than other groups.
Certainly, there is much a benefits broker or consultant can do to help employers reverse those feelings and perceptions. In fact, the good news is that by following some basic strategies, benefits advisors and employers can team up to help deliver a positive, effective enrollment experience to their information-hungry employees.
For example, SunTrust Banks Inc., the financial services company based in Orlando, Fla., relies on Marsh Global ConsumerConnexions, a benefits broker headquartered in West Des Moines, Iowa, to ensure it is giving its 32,000-plus employees the best information and voluntary benefits product options during enrollment. According to Mark Poole, director, ConsumerConnexions, communications is one of many critical success factors in SunTrust's enrollment success.
"As is the case with all of our employee benefit clients, the SunTrust enrollment process relies on a customized employee communications plan that uses a blend of print, electronic and on-site messaging to help maximize participation and satisfaction," Poole explains. "Interactive educational tools help employees understand the products and services that you are making available to them, so that they appreciate the value of the program."
Poole adds that on-line access to account information helps employees become better informed with a personalized experience in which product offerings and messages are targeted based on eligibility and demographics.
"As the SunTrust case shows, it's not complicated to get the right information in employees' hands before and during enrollment," says MetLife's Mullaney, citing simple tools--online life insurance or retirement calculators, for example--as just one way to meet employee needs.
"Our research shows employees are becoming more appreciative of benefits they get at work, so there is a heightened level of interest. But that also means employers need to be prepared with an open enrollment process that delivers the right information in an easy way."
What can benefits advisors do to help employers take advantage of this newfound interest on the part of employees? Again, MetLife's 2008 survey delivered some interesting data that can be used to create ways to improve open enrollment:
-- Two-thirds (66 percent) of employees find meetings and seminars with HR representatives extremely or very helpful, but only 30 percent of employees report that their employers offered such programs.
-- 79 percent of employees find calculators or decision tools "extremely" or "very" helpful, but only 10 percent of employers offered these tools.
-- Providing additional resources are well worth it for employers (with help from benefits consultants/brokers).
-- Among those workers that report having access to resources to help them make informed decisions, 82 percent were satisfied with their benefits offerings--compared with half (51 percent) of employees who stated that they didn't get the resources they needed.
-- Workers notice when their employer makes benefits a priority--the number one reason for making changes is "additional benefits offered by employer" (cited by 23 percent).
-- This was above both changes in personal or family health (13 percent) and changes in family composition (15 percent).
-- Most wanted added benefits were dental insurance (56 percent), vision insurance (47 percent) and prescription drug plan (32 percent).
According to Randy Stram, vice president for Institutional Business at MetLife, a very interesting factor in a successful enrollment strategy is to know beforehand if you are delivering the right benefit mix for your particular population.
In other words, open enrollment not only is a process that showcases and highlights the good stuff, it can reveal the delivery gaps as well. So for an open enrollment to be a success, it is a good idea to ensure that your benefits program is meeting employee needs and desires. How can you do that?
As is the case with Marsh and SunTrust, one way to accomplish that goal is to take advantage of software applications that can help assess your specific workforce. For example, employers can visit the MetLife website (whymetlife.com) to access an array of online benefits tools and information.
"We offer a free online benchmarking tool," Stram says. "A benefits professional can utilize the tool to determine what they need based on life stages of a specific employee population. They can see where the demographic concentrations might be, and can also see what other companies of similar size and in the same industry are offering. Then, when they roll out their open enrollment experience, the breadth and depth of their benefits program will be much more in sync with employee needs and expectations."
Marsh's Poole agrees, adding that his company tries to offer more choices to employees while, at the same time, not increasing administration overhead for employers.
"With a full suite of competitively priced products and services, including some from MetLife, we help empower employees to participate in and pay for only the benefits they want," Poole says.
Both Mullaney and Stram stress the critical nature of clear, concise benefits communications before and during enrollment, so benefits advisors would be smart to pay special attention to getting the clear, concise information out to employees.
"Our research shows a high correlation between the effectiveness of benefit communications and perceived value of those benefits," Mullaney says. "Simply put, if employees don't understand their benefits, they won't place a high value on them."
Stram explains that as employers shift from the idea of benefits being an expense to a talent attraction/retention advantage, they clearly want to improve the perceived value as well as the benefits offering themselves.
Finally, when you consider that the latest MetLife Employee Benefits Trends study found that an impressive 12 percent more (45 percent this year versus 33 percent last year) employees factor in benefits when deciding to remain at their current job, the critical value of a successful enrollment process comes into even clearer focus.
"It's becoming very obvious that employees are hungry for more information and tools to maximize their benefit dollars," Stram says. "They want more advice and counsel. More 'rule of thumb' ideas ... More programs such as 'People Like Me' and other similar offerings."
As employers have gone from one-size-fits-all to more personal benefit plans during the past decade, benefit communication tools have lagged, but they are starting to catch up, Stram explains.
"Many employees are poised to take action," he says. "They just need more access to information from employers and benefits advisors during an enrollment period."
Finally, says MetLife's Mullaney, introducing new benefits is another key strategy in energizing the open enrollment process. Again, the SunTrust example bears it out.
"Our research also shows that employees pay more attention during enrollment when new benefits are introduced," he says. "So it's a bonus for employers to add something new to the mix. It causes employees to stop and take their time to think about the new benefits in total."
A great way to add new benefits, he adds, is through voluntary offerings, such as dental plans, additional life insurance, legal services plans or long-term care--the type of products Marsh offers SunTrust and other clients.
"Cumulatively, voluntary benefits give employers a much better depth and breadth of benefits, and, at the same time, they deliver more of the choice employees seek as part of open enrollment," Mullaney says.
To learn more about how employees think and behave during their company's Open Enrollment period, you can download a copy of MetLife new white paper entitled "Open Enrollment at a Crossroad: New Employee Expectations, New Employer Opportunities" at www.whymetlife.com/broker/enrollment.
piece is part of our continuing Insights series designed to highlight key products and services to our readers. This paid-for
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June 10, 2008
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