It comes around every year: benefits enrollment season. And every year you work hard to communicate benefits so employees will understand your plan (or choice of plans) and take appropriate action.

But every year the task gets more difficult. Health care costs keep rising. Plan rules get more complicated. You make changes to keep costs contained, and employees view those changes as “takeaways.” And, just when you think you’ve got it all under control, a big curve ball (Can you say, “Congress?”) comes along.

It’s no wonder that every year you end up with a headache that requires a jumbo bottle of extra-strength pain reliever.

While I can’t take away your headache, I can take the pain out of communicating benefits--both during the enrollment period and throughout the year. Here are five ways to communicate so employees understand what’s changing and what they need to do:

1. Set objectives for what you need to achieve
Every communication effort should start with the end in mind: by setting objectives for what you want to accomplish. This is especially true when communicating benefits.

Why? Because there are often actions you need employees to take that determine whether or not your benefits are successful. The idea, of course, is to make sure you design communication to support those actions.

Here are two sample objectives:

  • Increase participation in the long-term disability program.
  • Influence employees to sign up for benefits throughout the enrollment period; don’t wait until the last two or three days to do so.

2. Understand what employees know and what they need
Once you’re clear what your company wants to accomplish, it’s time to turn your focus to employee needs and preferences. That’s why it’s time to conduct qualitative research--like focus groups--help you find out how well employees understand their current benefits, perceptions about the value of benefits and what employees need to know--and how they would like to receive communication.

3. Communicate simply, clearly and candidly
If you’ve read any of my work, you know that I’m passionate about being simple, clear and candid. And this advice especially applies to benefits: Because there are so many different benefits your company offers, and because many of them are so complex, it’s even more important that you simplify, simplify, simplify the way you communicate.

One piece of advice under the category “simple, clear and candid:” Don’t lose the human side of the equation. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in getting the facts right that you forget that communication should feel personal--after all, benefits are a topic that employees take personally.

4. Manage time wisely
When it comes to benefits communication, the Rolling Stones got it wrong: Time is definitely not on your side. In fact, timing is one of the trickiest aspects of communicating benefits

I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule for managing time wisely. Instead, in each situation, work at managing the right balance:

  • Allow enough time for employees to understand a change that’s coming, so they can get used to it.
  • Give employees a heads-up when something is coming. (“Next month is when enrollment starts.”)
  • Be as “just in time” as possible, so employees have the information right before they need to take action.
  • Provide “friendly reminders:” short messages that don’t overwhelm or annoy, but give a gentle little push to get going.

5. Use tools for what they do best
When it comes to benefits communication, some organizations use email for everything. After all, email is great for timely reminders. And for quick checklists. And to provide handy links to information available on a web site.

But email is not as effective as other communication channels for conveying complex information. For instance, there are terrific apps or web tools available that help employees enter personalized data and calculate the best choices for them. And posters and postcards are still valuable for providing important information at a glance.

And here’s something that might surprise you: One of the most effective tools for communicating benefits is still, after all these years, a print publication. Whether it’s a brief flyer), a four-page newsletter or a full brochure, print fits the bill for:

  • Compiling all the facts employees need to understand benefits and make decisions
  • Including charts, tables and other ways to compare information
  • Bringing benefits to life through examples
  • Allowing employees to share information with significant others (since many benefits decisions are still made at home at the kitchen table)

So choose the mix of tools that meet your objectives (see #1) and employees’ needs (#2).

There you go! Communicating benefits is still a lot of work, but the right approach can set you--and employees--up for success.

Originally published on

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