Online Benefits Education Should Target Spouses, Be Year-Round

By Stephen Miller Aug 10, 2010

Organizations can’t fully achieve wellness and health plan consumerism goals without spousal involvement. That message came through loud and clear in a July 2010 Benefits Pulse Survey report by HR consultancy Groh & Associates. “These plans require active involvement by participants. Offering benefits education to employees at work without involving spouses weakens the effort,” said Ken Groh, principal at Groh & Associates.

Virtually all surveyed U.S. benefits managers (86 percent) said that the role of the spouse is "very important" to the success of wellness and consumer-directed health plans; t 'arial','sans-serif'">he remaining 14 percent agreed it was “important.” Yet only 42 percent have an ongoing benefits information web site located outside their firewalls for home computer access by spouses and employees, while 78 percent have a benefits section on their company intranet, where outside access is limited.

A larger number (94 percent) provide access to benefits information through a link to their insurance carrier's web site, but that content generally isn’t branded and tailored to their own employee population, nor is it typically integrated with the company web site in a way that provides a familiar (and unintimidating) experience for employees and spouses.

Online Benefits Education—Learning Sites

Insurance carrier’s web site


Benefits section on company intranet


Benefits portal on the Internet (outside of firewall)


Source: Groh & Associates’ July 2010 Benefits Pulse Survey

Interestingly, 79 percent of respondents agreed it would be very helpful or helpful to have an externally accessible site for online benefits education, with the clear intent to reach employees and spouses through their home computers. What’s preventing more of them from setting them up? According to 56 percent of the respondents, the most important challenge to overcome would be to get employees and spouses to go to an online benefits site. This is followed by the ability to maintain site content that would keep the site interesting and relevant, cited by 47 percent. For 44 percent, it’s the cost, while 41 percent indicated concerns about security.

Means of Enrollment

Of the responding benefits managers, 82 percent said their employees enroll online, while 37 percent said they use paper enrollment forms or both paper and online resources. As one benefits manager explained, “Salaried employees get a postcard directing them to enrollment materials posted on our benefits web site where they can enroll online. We mail enrollment kits to hourly employees who choose to enroll online or by paper.”

Another way to enroll employees, used by 34 percent of the respondents, is by telephone through call centers or automated services. A few, 8 percent, send individuals on-site to enroll employees. On-site enrollers are typically provided by insurers who include voluntary insurance policies, such as life, critical illness, cancer and accident insurance, in one-on-one enrollment meetings with employees.

Time to Educate

"The fall open enrollment season is the only time of year when the window opens for all their employees to enroll in, re-elect or change their benefit elections. With health care reform and the Mental Health Parity Act creating changes in health plans for 2011 and beyond, this year’s open enrollment underscores the need for extensive benefits education and communication planning," said Groh.

Traditionally, he explained, such education is through printed enrollment packages mailed to homes. These mailings remain popular, with 68 percent of the respondents turning to print. The transition to online benefits education and enrollment is evident in that 65 percent indicated they post benefit and enrollment communication materials on their intranets. However, only 38 percent use external web sites for benefits education, which enables spouses to access the information.

"Whether by print or online, the 2011 benefits message will need to be clearly communicated since other surveys indicate that employees are confused and uncertain about the impact of new regulations on their benefits," said Groh.

Reaching New Hires

The survey found significant differences in the way new hires are educated about benefits. The use of online tools was more apparent, as 46 percent use their intranet to reach new hires. As one benefits manager explained, “Our new hires get an automated e-mail telling them to take an e-learning course that explains benefits.”

'Off-Season' Efforts

Less than half of responding managers, however, use online resources for ongoing benefits education during the “off season.” For ongoing wellness initiatives, 39 percent have a special external web site that employees can access to complete health risk assessments, learn about fitness programs, interact with health coaches and view wellness learning modules (such as e-learning and podcasts).

Stephen Milleris an online editor/manager for SHRM.​

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