Employees, Stressed by Benefits Decisions, Want More Help

Fears that benefits cutbacks loom could impede retention

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS July 26, 2017

Recent surveys on how employees select benefits provide insights for improving open-enrollment communications and employee engagement.

"Benefits enrollment is a time of confusion and stress for many employees," said Amanda Lannert, CEO of Jellyvision, a provider of benefits administration software. "The result is that many employees make decisions they later regret, often at a time when they need their benefits the most."

The firm sponsored a nationwide survey of 2,043 full-time U.S. employees, and the findings, published in June, showed that:

  • Employees want help. 55 percent of employees whose companies offer health insurance say they would like help from their employer when choosing a health plan.

  • Benefits decisions are stressful. 49 percent of employees say making health insurance decisions is always "very stressful."

  • Some employees just don't engage with some communications. 20 percent of employees say they don't keep up with benefits correspondence (e.g., they don't attend company benefits meetings, don't read their summary plan descriptions or they file/throw benefits materials away unread).

Left in the Dark

Four in 10 employees (41 percent) couldn't identify all of the elements that add up to the full cost of their health care, such as employee and employer contributions and cost of care. And half of employees (50 percent) said they weren't knowledgeable about high-deductible health plans (HDHPs).

"Employers spend so much time putting together competitive benefits packages but not enough time helping employees understand their options," Lannert said. "The challenge is most people don't want education on these topics. No one wakes up with a burning desire to learn about HDHPs."

Despite these hurdles, "in our experience, people respond best to plain-English communication that feels like they're talking about benefits with a friend—if benefits were a thing friends ever talked about," she noted.

Congress's ACA replacement efforts have given employers an opportunity to address employees' concerns over the security of their health benefits, yet the poll found that just 10 percent of employees had received communications about how a potential changes to the ACA would affect—or not affect—their employer-provided health care.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Organizational Communication]

Employees Value Advice

American workers are evenly split in their satisfaction levels with employer-provided benefits, indicates the latest "value of benefits" survey by the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).

The findings, published in April, report on a survey of 1,500 workers in the U.S., conducted last year.

"Employers that offer a strong employee benefits package—especially health coverage—that balances costs and choice should find themselves with a competitive advantage over other companies when it comes to attracting and retaining desirable workers," said Paul Fronstin, director of EBRI's Health Research and Education program and co-author of the report. "They also will have more satisfied employees overall."

Beyond the importance of having health benefits, the survey showed that workers recognize the importance of group pricing and being able to pay their premiums through pretax payroll deductions. It also found that while two-thirds of workers were confident in their ability to make informed benefits choices, nearly as many would welcome benefits advice from a third-party advisor or an online program.

Among other key findings:

  • One-third of workers (32 percent) are only somewhat satisfied with the benefits offered by their current employer, and 20 percent are not satisfied.

  • Many would take advantage of benefits advice either through a third-party benefits advisor provided at no cost (21 percent extremely likely and 37 percent very likely) or an online program offered at no cost (21 percent and 36 percent).

  • More than one-half (55 percent) prefer online enrollment methods versus just 16 percent who prefer a paper method.

Given the continuing trend of shifting costs to employees, only half (49 percent) of respondents were extremely or very confident that their employer would continue to offer a similar benefits package three years from now. Those who were less confident that their benefits will remain the same tend to believe their benefits will be scaled back.

When employees aren't sure that their employer will maintain health benefits without shifting additional costs to employees, that can hamper efforts to retain high-quality employees, Fronstin noted.

Brokers Offer Help

Sixty-three percent of health insurance brokers in a recent survey said that employers rely on them for help with communications materials, and 53 percent said that employers seek their guidance to manage open enrollment.

To meet new employer demands and stay competitive, brokers are adding to their suite of services, according to the survey of more than 120 brokers by Birmingham, Ala.-based DirectPath, an employee engagement and health care compliance firm. Approximately three quarters of brokers surveyed now offer employee engagement tools and resources.

"The health care landscape is constantly in flux, and this shows no sign of changing—not only as a result of the political climate, but as we see continued industry innovation alongside the evolving needs from today's workforce," said DirectPath CEO Bart Yancey. "Brokers have a huge opportunity to be the strategic partner for helping employers keep costs down, engage employees on their benefits and maintain compliance to shifting regulations."

Benefits vs. Lump Sums

The Employee Benefit Research Institute survey cited above found that just 2 in 10 workers preferred shifting toward a system where the employer gives the worker the money it currently spends on benefits and leaves it up to workers to decide whether to purchase benefits on their own and how much to spend, an approach often referred to as defined contribution health care.

Enactment of the 21st Century Cures Act last December allows small businesses not subject to the ACA's employer mandate (that is, those with fewer than 50 full-time employees) to fund health reimbursement arrangements with pretax dollars so employees can buy individual plans on the open market.

Employers who might take this approach should consider providing guidance and support to employees who would need to navigate the individual market and public health care exchanges, EBRI's findings suggest.

Related SHRM Articles:

Using Voluntary Benefits to Attract and Keep Part-Time Employees, SHRM Online Benefits, July 2017

How to Explain Benefits to Employees Who Don't Care, SHRM Online Conference Today, June 2017

Open Enrollment Tips for the Coming Season, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2016 

SHRM Resource Page:

Guide to Open Enrollment

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