Robust benefits programs have long been a strategy employers have used to attract and retain top talent, with healthcare continuously cited as the benefit employees care about the most. Unsurprisingly, this has not changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, employers are now tasked with exploring new and innovative ways to mitigate the ever-increasing cost of healthcare, while also meeting the changing needs of employees and their families.
To address both of these pressing concerns, many employers are creating “whole person” benefit programs that go beyond typical employer-sponsored health coverage and extend into every area of life. According to the 2020 SHRM Benefits Survey, employers have decreased physical workplace wellness benefits and instead are offering access to employer-covered online mental health services, telehealth appointments, and virtual-first programs addressing pressing health concerns such as smoking cessation and stress management.
In order for these expanded benefit portfolios to have their desired effect—improved health outcomes for employees and increased cost savings for employers—it’s critical for employees to engage with the benefits available to them. However, as every HR and benefits leader knows all too well, high demand for benefits does not necessarily correlate with high engagement. Let’s explore the reasons behind low benefits utilization and an easy but powerful way to increase employee engagement with health benefits.
What causes low health benefits utilization?
Engagement is one of the primary considerations when HR teams select benefits to offer their team. Quite simply, without meaningful engagement with a benefit, employers won’t see a return on their investment. As such, employers often strive to improve benefits engagement by thinking outside the box. For example, they may adopt behavioral science principles or establish a year-round healthcare benefits communication strategy, moving away from open enrollment and the start of the new benefit year being the main opportunities for promoting benefits.
Even with these efforts, engaging employees with their health benefits isn’t easy. A 2017 SHRM report found that nearly half of employees say benefits decisions are “very stressful” and 20% don’t keep up with benefits communications. Now that many employees are working remotely, benefits engagement is even more challenging for HR teams.
Before we can effectively solve the problem of low health benefits utilization, we first need to understand what causes it. There are a few key reasons employees may not engage with their health benefits:
- They may not know what the benefit offers them. This may be the case because they haven’t read the materials provided to them, or because the value hasn’t been clearly communicated.
- They may forget which benefits are available to them. Due to a sharp increase in the number of benefits offered, employees may not remember all of the benefits they have access to, leading to—you guessed it—low utilization.
- They may not know when the right time to use a benefit is. Even if employees generally remember they have a specific benefit, they may not know when they should use it. For example, if an employee’s child has an earache and they have traditional health insurance, telemedicine services, and an onsite clinic available to them, they may not know where to start.
Just as healthcare is often confusing to navigate, finding your way around a benefits program can also be tricky. Thankfully, there’s a solution that can solve all of these problems, increase employee engagement with their health benefits, and give employers the return on investment they need to justify their decision to adopt the benefit in the first place.
The antidote to low health benefits utilization? Contextual delivery.
The phrase centralized access is probably not new to you. From data asset management systems to single sign-on to all of your company’s software, centralizing access is a way to reduce friction and improve efficiency. Likewise, the healthcare sector is working toward centralizing patient medical records as a way to improve care coordination and, subsequently, health outcomes.
Even within the HR and benefits space, employers have attempted to aggregate access to benefits through HRIS platforms, wellness platforms, benefits administration platforms, advocacy hotlines, and healthcare guidance platforms. There are pros and cons to each approach but, generally speaking, having every health benefit accessible via a single platform doesn’t solve the problem of low health benefits utilization. Why is that?
Presenting benefits to employees at the right time and in the right context is the most effective way to drive engagement with health benefits.
Let’s use our earlier example of an employee’s child with an earache to better understand why contextual delivery of health benefits is important:
Your team has access to three different clinical care options: traditional health insurance, a telemedicine app, and an onsite clinic. One of your employees, Susan, has a young child complaining of an earache. Susan is concerned and wants to see a doctor ASAP. Unsure if she should go to urgent care or wait for an appointment with a primary care doctor or an ENT specialist, she logs into her digital healthcare guidance platform to see which providers are in-network, highly rated, and close to home.
After typing “earache” in the search box, she’s directed to a screen reminding her of the telemedicine benefit she has access to through her employer. Knowing that a virtual visit will be much more convenient for her and more comfortable for her child, she clicks through to the telemedicine benefit and schedules a time to meet with a doctor later that day—right from her smartphone.
A few weeks later, Susan feels unwell and, remembering that she has a telemedicine benefit that worked well when her child had an earache, books a virtual appointment for herself through the benefit. Because she had a great experience, she even tells a few coworkers about it.
When health benefits are centralized and offered in the right context, when employees need them most, employers can see improved awareness and engagement—both at the time of delivery and in the future. As employees engage more with their health benefits, the ROI of each benefit increases, while healthcare costs decrease. Win-win.