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How to get your employees engaged with their benefits and why it’s good for your company

Health and Benefits|Wellbeing
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June 22, 2021

Look for scalable, ready and integrated solutions that deliver maximum impact on engagement to drive stronger business performance.

Benefits are only valuable when employees use them. When they don’t, it’s a missed opportunity for both employees and the organization. Engaging your workforce with their benefits is essential and will help to boost your bottom line. Read on for insights from Willis Towers Watson’s experts Emma Tekstra and Rebekah Haymes.

Meet our experts

Rebekah Haymes
Senior Director and Flex Practice Leader, Great Britain

Emma Tekstra
Innovation & Service Development Leader, Health & Benefits

How do employee benefits factor into employee engagement? Why did benefits become such a critical component of the employee experience during the pandemic?

Rebekah Haymes:  Companies recognize that engaged employees drive stronger business performance. We certainly saw organizations make that connection more often than in the past, as a result of the pandemic. With health concerns rising, employees were more active in seeking wellbeing support. However, compromised access to employees created a challenging communication environment for employers. Simply put, companies that were able to communicate employee benefits support during the pandemic were able to engage their employees, ensure continued or improved productivity levels and likely benefited from that engagement in terms of their business performance.

Employers across the world are now trying to adapt to a thrust of new technologies and working to align their benefits strategies with new and increasing demands from employees for flexibility, personalized health care and remote delivery.

Simply put, companies that were able to communicate employee benefits support during the pandemic were able to engage their employees, ensure continued or improved productivity levels and likely benefited from that engagement in terms of their business performance.

Emma Tekstra: The concept of building trust and truly engaging employees, in what we call “moments that matter, was paramount during the pandemic. When you, your spouse or child is sick, how your employer supports you in those moments that matter is critical to employee engagement. When managers are well trained to deal with people on their team going through stressful and difficult situations, it builds trust. And when you’ve built trust, you have started building engagement.

Why do employers struggle to engage employees with their benefits?

Rebekah Haymes: It’s not uncommon for employees to lack awareness of the programs and resources their employer offers, let alone understand how those programs support their health and wellbeing. The multi-generational makeup of today’s workforce is one of the reasons companies struggle. We know traditional communication methods of broad all-employee mailings and emails don’t hit the mark for many. For the biggest boost to employee engagement, today’s employers need to position benefits in different ways to different audiences. But that’s not an easy task.

Benefit needs differ among different employee groups and we see a lot of variation in how employees use their benefits. Virtual work created stress and mental wellbeing challenges for many employees, but how many got help? How could an employer know which employees to target? Employers are challenged to raise awareness of certain benefits available to employees (both at enrolment and at the point of need), educate them to make informed choices and then drive them to action. It’s time intensive and often not technology driven, making it difficult to segment employees and deliver the right message to the right segment at the right time.

Emma Tekstra: To that point, in some countries, HR spends so much time figuring out how employees are using benefits that they may overlook how to engage employees in their benefits before the employee needs them. It might be a lack of resources, a lack of focus, or a misalignment with how benefits fit into the employee value proposition. While HR may be tied up in making sure they are offering the right benefits at the right cost, employee engagement can fall lower down on the priority list, which isn’t good.

HR spends so much time figuring out how employees are using benefits that they may overlook how to engage employees in their benefits before the employee needs them.

What role did technology play in benefits, employee engagement and the employee experience during the pandemic?

Emma Tekstra: Technology is a great enabler of the employee experience. It allows an employer to personalize to the individual in a way that can really resonate with them. The pandemic forced many employees to work from home rendering traditional ways of communicating with employees (such as posters around the office or team huddles) ineffective. You can’t abandon the traditional routes of face-to-face engagement entirely, but technology can be a very powerful enabler in employee engagement, particularly in benefits engagement.

Rebekah Haymes: The pandemic also emphasized the need for benefits agility. Companies had to be nimble and supportive when employees’ priorities changed overnight after COVID-19. New benefits were required to support these changing priorities. In some cases, existing benefit options became unaffordable to those facing increased financial pressure. Many employees wanted to make off-cycle changes to their benefits like upgrade their healthcare or childcare coverage outside of regular enrolment. This forced employers, and their advisors, to think in a more flexible way and deviate from standard enrolment rules. Technology was one way to support these changing needs and ensure the dissemination of helpful information to people at lightning speed. That was so important.

Emma Tekstra: Building on that, the pandemic also highlighted the differences between employers that had technology at the ready and were able to jump in very quickly to provide access to things like telehealth and therapeutic resources. They saw employee trust skyrocket because this was one of those moments that matter in a very stressful situation. On the flip side, employers that were not ready to jump in with technology probably lost some employee confidence and goodwill.

App stores were bombarded with all kinds of new health and wellness apps during the pandemic. Can you speak to that from a benefits perspective?

Rebekah Haymes: It’s easy to see how employees could feel overwhelmed with the increasing number of choices available to them. Employers that were able to provide guidance to employees, directing them to targeted programs, benefits and apps are the ones who saw the biggest increases in engagement. Delivering that type of support to employees in a personalized way had an impact on the employee experience.

Emma Tekstra: Yes, it’s important that colleagues in all different departments are working together and looking at what the company is trying to do from an employee experience perspective. Otherwise, you can wind up working against each other. For example, if a company starts introducing different kinds of benefits portals including ones from a telehealth provider, an employee assistance program, the insurance provider and a mindfulness app – all independent of each other, employees can feel bombarded and overwhelmed. Companies need to bring those things together holistically, through one single employee touchpoint, so that the combination of technologies is much more powerful than each individual piece.

What advice do you have for employers struggling to engage their employees in their benefits?

Emma Tekstra: Start small and look for scalable technology solutions that allow you to grow. Apps that create an immediate touchpoint with every employee, like Willis Towers Watson’s Embark, are a great starting point and allow you to get basic benefits communications to employees on their phone or desktop. In normal times, these apps can help you make sure that employees understand what's available to them in their regular benefits. In the event of another health crisis or weather emergency, these apps allow you to reach employees significantly faster in the moments that matter.

Start small and look for scalable technology solutions that allow you to grow. Apps that create an immediate touchpoint with every employee are a great starting point.

Rebekah Haymes:  Flexible benefits are benefits that each employee can choose from (e.g., health insurance/retirement plans) to create a custom employee benefit plan that fits their lifestyle and preferences. These benefits are increasingly attractive and key to employee engagement. However, many organizations don't offer full flexibility in their benefits, rather just an element of choice. By harnessing the power of technologies with enrolment capabilities, like Benefits Access from Willis Towers Watson, employers can make full flexibility possible in a matter of months, not years.

Emma Tekstra: There is also a lot you can do in the voluntary benefits space without increasing employer cost. Programs such as supplemental life, critical-illness, dental, lifestyle programs, or even pet insurance can be offered through an employer but paid for partially or entirely by employees. We have seen that when employers offer more flexibility and choice, employee engagement goes up as does trust in their employer, in part because they recognize the value of the time taken to assemble best-in-class vendors across a range of benefit categories.

 

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