As health and retirement plans have transformed, so too has the role that benefits teams play in their employees’ experience. During the past few decades, employer-sponsored benefits—like comprehensive PPOs and pension plans—have given way to high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) and 401(k)s. Today, employees are increasingly responsible for managing their own health care costs and saving for their needs in retirement.
Historically, benefits teams were most concerned about communicating how benefits worked. This is shifting, too. As stewards, employers are now focusing on influencing behaviors, like encouraging employees to save more, invest wisely, exercise regularly, and positively manage their well-being. This is not an easy task. As behavioral scientists prove time and again, we don’t always act in our own best interest. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein put it best in Nudge: “It is particularly hard for people to make good decisions when they have trouble translating the choice they face into experiences they will have.”
It’s this focus on behavior change that’s also connecting health and retirement teams. Increasingly, departments are joining forces to help employees make the most of their benefits. This provides enormous value for employees. For them, health and wealth are inextricably connected. After all, contributions to their health savings accounts (HSAs) and retirement accounts come from the same wallet.
This connection offers employers a unique opportunity to help employees navigate the complex world of health and retirement benefits. The nexus, they’ve discovered, is well-being.
So, how can you help employees prioritize their well-being? Here are 5 steps you can take.
1. Give employees permission to make time for their well-being.
Focusing on our own well-being—whether it’s going for a walk outside during lunch or re-evaluating the investments in your 401(k)—takes time. And taking time for ourselves often gets squeezed by competing priorities, deadlines, meetings, and everything else on our plates. To help employees make well-being a priority, you can make a big difference by signaling that it’s okay to do so. Whether you’re offering flu shots or financial check-ups, allowing—and even helping—employees block time on their calendars makes follow-through easier. Endorsements from leadership and managers also help. Leading by example is even more powerful. Whatever the subject of your campaign, provide your managers with the tools to encourage, promote, and participate in your programs.
2. Take a holistic approach to your wellness strategy.
Consider mapping out a strategy at the beginning of each year to help ensure you’re aligning topics with employee mindsets. Asking employees to boost their 401(k) savings during the month of December—when many are focused on gift giving—is unlikely to get traction. Think about your year in total and how best to align your resources with employee needs.
3. Nudge employees with frequent outreach.
Health and financial literacy rates are incredibly low worldwide. While it may seem like the right approach to offer up education to improve literacy, researchers have proven that broad-based education isn’t the answer. Making employees more capable health and retirement consumers requires building awareness of where to find resources, repeated interaction to build understanding, and just-in-time communications to provide them with the information they need when making critical decisions. To help your employees reap the value of your benefits programs, be sure to focus your communication efforts on getting the word out. We recommend that employers:
- Centralize information online in a place that’s easy to access, namely a benefits website that’s built outside the firewall.
- Communicate year-round to direct employees where they should go to learn more.
- Provide decision-support tools at times when you know employees will be making critical decisions, such as offering an interactive tool to help people understand the benefits of a new investment fund when added to the 401(k).
4. Be specific and targeted in your wellness communications.
If you’re focusing on behavior change, review your plan participation data, claims information, and any other metrics you have available. Focus on improving one stat at a time in each different area or program, and build that into your holistic, high-level strategy. That will help you prioritize your goals and guide your efforts.
For example, you could reach out to individuals who are:
- Not participating in the 401(k)
- Participating in the 401(k), but saving below the match
- Not diversifying their 401(k) investments
- Enrolled in the HDHP, but not enrolled in the HSA
- Enrolled in the HSA, but saving below the maximum contribution allowed
- Missing beneficiary elections
As you conduct campaigns throughout the year, benchmark their effectiveness, evaluate their impact on employee behavior, and dig deeper into additional measures you can take to help your employees improve their well-being and retirement readiness.
5. For maximum engagement, leverage change.
Employees are most open to re-evaluating their benefits decisions during times of change. These moments can be triggered by professional, personal, or calendar-driven events. Here are just a few examples:
- Plan design changes
- Changes in providers, funds, or platforms
- New hire orientation, internal job changes, and offboarding employees
- Life events (getting married or divorced, or having a child, etc.)
- Annual bonus, promotion, or salary raise periods
- Seasonal and calendar events (e.g., America Saves Week, tax deadlines, or open enrollment)
Some of these inflection points may be driven by your own plan design changes. If that’s the case, don’t forget to explain your rationale to help employees better understand what those changes might mean for them. These pivotal moments also offer additional opportunities to underscore the value of the benefits you offer employees, and reaffirm why yours is a great company to work for.
Helping employees make the most of your health and retirement plans is an ongoing effort. Personal situations change, as will the programs you offer. Any effort you make will have an impact. Start small, track what does and doesn’t work, and measure your efforts. You’ll see a difference, and your employees will thank you for it.
We're proud to work with large employers who recognize the business value of engaging employees in benefits. If you want to learn more, contact us.
 Nudge, Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein, Penguin Group, 2008.
 Financial Literacy, Financial Education and Downstream Financial Behaviors, Daniel Fernandes, John G. Lynch, Richard G. Netemeyer, Social Science Research Network, Jan. 6, 2014.