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Build Empathy into Your 2020 Open Enrollment Season

For over-stressed employees, this year's open enrollment isn't business as usual

A woman is holding an umbrella and a man is holding a phone.

The phrase "we're all in this together" is often bandied about as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, but any employee may be facing a situation far different from those of his or her colleagues.

Compare the employee who has two children schooling at home and whose spouse is furloughed to the employee approaching retirement with no children at home and a comfortable nest egg. Between these two scenarios lies a wide range of personal situations challenging workers' health, wealth and well-being.

Those varying situations will come to the forefront during open enrollment, when employees select their benefits for the next year.

Open enrollment "feels different this year because it is different this year," said Kim Maitlin, North America practice leader, communication and change management, with HR consultancy Willis Towers Watson. "It's not just different for our employees; it's different for our managers and our leaders, as well."

It's important for HR managers to understand their employees' situations and diverse needs, Maitlin said. "People are looking for benefits, programs or tools that might be able to support them in this time" of heightened stress and uncertainty.

For instance, a July survey of 1,000 full-time employees by benefits provider MetLife found large percentages of employees:

  • Felt that open enrollment is more important this year than it was in 2019 (48 percent), and most who said so cited COVID-19 as the reason why.
  • Intend to spend more time selecting benefits from their employer during the upcoming open enrollment period (40 percent).

"In this tough environment, it's important that employers demonstrate an understanding of employee stress, anxiety and insecurities," said Meredith Ryan-Reid, senior vice president and head of financial wellness and engagement at MetLife.

Stressful Times

Pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts reported in mid-April that the number of prescriptions filled per week for antidepressant, anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications had increased sharply due to the coronavirus pandemic. The greatest increase was in prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications, which rose 34 percent between mid-February and mid-March.

The rise in anti-anxiety medications is particularly striking given that before the pandemic, the use of these drugs had declined over the past five years, according to Express Scripts' America's State of Mind report.

Expressing Empathy Through Communications

Effective communication has always been vital during open enrollment, but this year it's even more important, and so is expressing empathy. Employers should show that they understand the fears and anxieties their employees are feeling.

Employers should be "thinking differently about the tone and positioning of benefit messages this year … acknowledging the challenges facing parents and caregivers or the importance of maintaining physical and mental health, or that employees' needs and priorities have shifted in light of the pandemic," said Robyn Bachochin, partner and Chicago career business leader at HR consultancy Mercer.

To do this effectively, Bachochin recommends creating employee personas—a marketing technique that uses composite sketches of similar employee groups to represent the differences among workers' life situations.

Examples of personas could be "Jill," a single mom with young children learning at home who needs flexible work arrangements, and "Jack," a middle-age man who withdrew funds from his 401(k) while on furlough and could benefit from financial wellness resources.

"Creating a set of personas can help dig into what matters to different types of employees and how to best tailor the message, or how it's delivered, so it is empathetic and resonates," Bachochin said.

Maitlin at Willis Towers Watson said, "It's important for organizations to take the time to listen to their employees and understand them. People's situations are different. It's important to recognize those differences in your plans and programs, as well as in how you communicate with and support [employees]."

Don't make the mistake of believing that 2019's communications channels will work in 2020, said Misty Guinn, director of benefits and wellness at BenefitFocus, a benefits-administration software firm. Employers should help employees use online tools, webinars, podcasts and blogs "so they can make the right decisions for themselves and their families," she advised.

Providing Support for Managers

During open enrollment season, organizations should also be thinking about how they can support managers who are dealing with their own issues and concerns.

"Empathy may come more naturally to some HR professionals and managers than others," Bachochin said. She recommends developing talking points to address important benefit initiatives or efforts. "This can help leaders find the right words and provide consistent support across the organization," she said.

Guinn advised ensuring that company leaders communicate with emotional intelligence, to let employees "know that they're not alone in making these decisions in this new world."

Reach Out to Employees

Maitlin suggested that organizations focus on providing decision-support resources this year. "Employees are feeling anxious, and it's hard for them to plan right now," she noted.

Many organizations also will have furloughed some employees due to the pandemic, intending to bring them back onto the payroll later. Don't forget about them, Maitlin said, whether the organization was able to continue benefits for furloughed workers or not.

"They are important brand ambassadors, so it's important that you treat them in the same way that you treat your active employees," she advised. Be able to direct them to sources of assistance, if needed. Similarly, employees with a partner or spouse who lost their job are likely to raise concerns about their situations, so have a plan to answer those questions, too.

Bachochin said that even if your company is not making significant benefit plan changes for next year, it's not OK to "just update last year's material without reframing your message." This is not, she pointed out, a business-as-usual open enrollment.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

Related SHRM Articles:

Employers Feel More Responsible for Employees' Financial Wellness, SHRM Online, October 2020

Helping Employees Navigate Health Benefits During Open Enrollment, SHRM Online, September 2020

A New Role for Critical-Illness Insurance in the Coronavirus Era, SHRM Online, September 2020

Prepare for Open Enrollment Challenges During a Difficult Year, SHRM Online, July 2020

[Visit SHRM's resource page on open enrollment.]


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