Designing Benefit Campaigns for Employees Struggling to Make Ends Meet

Help workers choose benefits that make sense for them

By Stephen Miller, CEBS May 23, 2017
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Debt stress is taking a toll on workers, and you needn't look further than your health care claims to see the cost.

"People with high levels of financial stress have greater incidents of high blood pressure, severe anxiety and deep depression, leading to conditions ranging from stomach ulcers to heart attacks," said Lori Block, a San Francisco-based total well-being strategist at Conduent HR Services.

Block was among the presenters at the recent 2017 Total Rewards Conference in Washington, D.C. The annual event is sponsored by WorldatWork, an association of total rewards professionals.

"Household budgets have been squeezed by stagnant wages and rising housing and health costs; meanwhile, it's never been easier to spend money," since anything an employee might desire is readily available on the Internet, Block said.

Guiding employees into appropriate health and savings plans can help them weather the financial storm; so can providing education and resources on living within a family budget and planning for current and future needs.

Daily Hardships

To put a face on the problem, Block presented two representative employee profiles.

"Terry" is a 25-year-old, unmarried computer programmer on his first post-college job who:

  • Didn't actively participate in the last annual enrollment and defaulted into the high-deductible health plan (HDHP).
  • Is entitled to participate in a health savings account (HSA) that would receive company funding but hasn't gone online to open one.
  • Did opt out of the 401(k) automatic enrollment.
  • Missed 15 days of work last year due to illness.
  • Routinely deletes HR e-mails without reading them.

Terry missed the memos about open enrollment deadlines because he was overwhelmed by his first full-time job. He didn't get the benefits brochure mailed to his home because he moved in with a friend when he couldn't afford his rent and didn't provide HR with his current address. He's paying off student loans ($25,000 down, $75,000 to go) and credit card debt. His financial stress is triggering migraines.

"Chris" is a 43-year-old marketing vice president; she's married with three children and:

  • Has two 401(k) loans outstanding and is applying for a hardship withdrawal.
  • Expressed extreme frustration with her last bonus payout.
  • Has a family that's a high user of the health care plan.

Chris's spouse lost his job 18 months ago and is still unemployed. She has one child in college, and another attending a private high school. The third child has severe asthma, triggering several trips to the emergency room. She is struggling to make mortgage and tuition payments and to pay off her 401(k) loans.

"Sound familiar?" Block asked.

Among the advice she offered: Have the right programs and resources in place to help employees reduce stress and adopt behaviors that are physically and financially healthier, and make information on these resources available, interesting and relevant to the individual.

[SHRM members-only guide: How to Design an Employee Benefits Program]

Branding the Message at Charlotte Russe

"We have employees who are paying a lot of money for the most expensive plan," said Dan Frisbie, people director at women's fashion retailer Charlotte Russe, a midsized company with offices in San Francisco and San Diego. Its employees work predominantly in retail sales.

When the company analyzed how workers used their benefits a few years ago, it found that 59 percent elected the more costly preferred provider organization (PPO) plan option and 73 percent didn't reach the annual deductible—meaning they would have been better off in a lower-premium HDHP. Among other findings:

  • Only 34 percent got an annual wellness exam, "and they're free" to the employee, Frisbie noted.

  • 67 percent waited until the last three days to complete open enrollment, and most rolled over to the benefit options already in place. "At the last minute, they weren't making thoughtful decisions," he said.

Frisbie brought in the company's marketing department to design benefits communication that "reflects our brand" through a campaign that "reinforces the basic message over and over."

That benefits brochure explains the basics and shows the math regarding premiums, deductibles and company funding (and makes sure that all terms are clearly explained or, when possible, reflect words that people, not insurers, actually use).

While communications must convey certain information required by law, "don't allow lawyers to overly complicate" the message, Frisbie said. He strives to "take boring language out and put information into real-person speech."

Following the launch of the campaign, participation in the company's health reimbursement arrangement (HRA) plan grew from 6 percent of the workforce to 43 percent over three years, and "more than half of our HRA participants have unspent funds to roll over" to the next year. One reason: "HRA participants go to the emergency room 50 percent less than those on the PPO, and increased their use of urgent care centers instead. The bottom line is that they saved money, and we saved money."

Addressing Total Well-Being at Comcast NBCUniversal

At Comcast NBCUniversal, a New York City-based corporation with over 150,000 employees—half of whom earn under $50,000 per year—the firm offers personalized assistance to support employees' physical, emotional and financial health "because they're all connected," said Dan De Oliveira, Comcast NBCUniversal's director of financial health benefits.

These support benefits include a concierge health service for assistance navigating health care issues and financial coaches who can give fiduciary advice on handling money matters. "We see financial wellness as a major opportunity to alleviate employees' stress over the next few years," De Oliveira said.

The company also holds an annual "healthy work week" event tied to open enrollment to focus employees' attention on their health and coverage options, provides incentives for participating in biometric health screenings, and offers online tools for comparing health provider costs and "selecting the coverage that makes the best sense for you," De Oliveira said.

Related SHRM Articles:

Top and Bottom Earners Responsible for Most Health Care Spending, Study Shows, SHRM Online Benefits, February 2017

Is 2017 the Year of Employee Financial Wellness Programs?, SHRM Online Benefits, January 2017

Reach Out to Workers Living Paycheck-to-Paycheck, SHRM Online Compensation, September 2016

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