By Amanda Eisenberg | Employee Benefit News

Millennials, more than any other generation, want to have in-person conversations about their benefits, according to new research.

Nearly seven in 10 millennials (68%) prefer in-person interactions regarding emotional wellness benefits, 9% more than Generation X and 16% more than baby boomers, according to a new study from Health Advocate, a U.S. assistance and health and patient advocacy company.

Similarly, six in 10 millennials want to speak directly with someone when communicating about physical wellness benefits (61%) and managing chronic conditions (66%), according to the study.

“Everyone wants to feel that the person they’re talking to knows them and is answering the questions based on what they know about them,” says Abbie Leibowitz, Health Advocate’s chief medical officer.

While benefit plans and health backgrounds can be gleamed from third-party benefits support, he says personalization matters when answering employee questions and communicating benefit options.

This preferred interaction extends beyond the youth to another unlikely population: men.

The Pennsylvania-based company surveyed more than 500 full-time U.S. employees and found that 62% of men, regardless of age, prefer in-person conversations, compared to 44% of women.

“Women tend to be more hands-on,” Leibowitz says. “Men would just like to give [the problem] to someone else.”

Although women might be more willing than men to use technological offerings, such as a carrier’s website or company portal, to understand their benefits, both don’t seem to have much choice.

Benefit program managers greatly favor email (67%), flyers and brochures (40%), and websites and online portals (26%) over in-person or phone conversations (9%), according to the survey.

Emails and brochures tend to distribute general material rather than personalized solutions, a problem that 40% of employees cite as a core flaw to their organizations’ wellness initiatives, according to the survey.

“Different generations are going to respond to different lines of communication,” says Marcy Klipfel, senior vice president of employee engagement at Businessolver, a business management consultant company in West Des Moines, Iowa. “You have to use multiple channels and deliver it in consumable bites.”

Klipfel says her company gives its employees tools throughout the year to educate them on benefits decisions they’ll make during open enrollment.

“I always remind my team, according to [the data] leverage from Businessolver, employees spend less than 20 minutes making benefit elections,” she says, “but more than 50 hours on fantasy football.”

Those quick benefit decisions can be attributed to lack of information throughout the year.

Almost half of employees (47%) receive health and benefits communication annually, biannually or once during onboarding, according to Health Advocate’s survey.

Meanwhile, 41% of employees report that their top complaint about their employers’ benefits program is that communication is too infrequent, according to the survey.

Health Advocate’s Leibowitz says a personalized interface option might be the best bridge between answering employee questions in real time while also providing applicable answers through technology offerings.

Klipfel says the company’s product, a benefits tool that assesses an employee’s risk tolerance, is offered to its own employees to assist with decision-making come open enrollment.

“I have seen a decrease in the number of handholding and questions I need to answer,” she says.

Norbert “Bert” Alicea, MA, CEAP
Corporate Wellness Magazine | December 16, 2016

The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and excitement, but for many employees, it can also be a difficult season for any number of reasons. For some, the extra pressure of facing looming year-end deadlines during a shortened work month, combined with additional personal, financial, and family obligations, can cause holiday stress during this time of year. However, for others, the holidays can bring forth more long-term issues to the surface. Whether they recently lost a loved one, are experiencing financial issues, or facing any number of other challenges, the holidays can compound these problems and create further stress, anxiety and depression. No matter what the issue, the holidays have the potential to cause stress and anxiety, which can spill over into the workplace and lead to a reduction in productivity, among other concerns. It’s important for managers and supervisors, as well as HR professionals, to understand how to identify and address issues stemming from employees’ holiday stress in the workplace.

Identifying Potential Holiday Stress Issues

There are some key signs that can indicate your employees may be experiencing higher-than-normal holiday stress or anxiety, especially during this busy time of year, including:

  • Change in normal behavior, such as becoming uncharacteristically irritable or withdrawn
  • Change in appearance or hygiene
  • Lack of focus or concentration
  • Unusual tension with other colleagues
  • Change in quality of work performance/reduction in productivity
  • Absenteeism/Presenteeism

These signs can all indicate a potential issue, but the earlier managers or HR professionals identify a particular problem and guide these employee toward helpful resources, the sooner that employee can get the help they need.

Helping Employees Manage Holiday Stress

There are a few things managers or HR professionals can do to help boost morale and reduce stress among their entire team during this time of year, including:

  • Incorporate wellness breaks to give employees a chance to refocus, such as a walk outside or quick team yoga session
  • Help employees prioritize projects to manage pending deadlines that may be creating additional stress
  • Encourage employees to stay home when sick helps to avoid spreading illness among the team, and gives the employee the time they need to get healthy
  • Motivate employees to work together as a team to share the workload and avoid some employees taking on too much extra work when others take time off
  • Educate employees about financial wellness or other related programs that can assist them with budget concerns and enable them to plan ahead for holiday expenses

When individual employees show signs of a more serious problem, it’s important to step in quickly when appropriate. While many employees may show some signs of temporary stress, prolonged issues should be addressed as soon as possible for the health and safety of the employee. As a manager, make sure to loop in HR and document all interactions with the employee about a more serious issue to ensure all appropriate guidelines are followed. These discussions should be held in private out of respect for the employee and should be compassionate and understanding and take into account the root cause of the issue at hand. When necessary, guide employees to available resources, including HR or an Employee Assistance Program, which can help address or resolve a wide variety of concerns.

Available Resources to Help Holiday Stress

According to a 2014 survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 79 percent of all employers with 200 or more employees offer an EAP, yet many employees may not be aware of this service. It is critical that managers, in addition to HR, know about the program in order to recommend it to employees as needed. To raise awareness, HR teams can provide managers and employees with materials about the EAP, especially during high-stress seasons, so they have the information handy if they want to take advantage of this service. An EAP is generally available to employees at no cost to them, making it a free and available resource to help them address concerns during the holidays and throughout the year. Programs often offer short-term assistance to address a number of personal or professional concerns, including stress, depression, family issues, substance abuse and more. Services often include confidential counseling with a licensed, professional counselor by phone and/or in person to help an individual get through a tough time. For those employees who may need further support, EAP specialists can direct participants to qualified long-term assistance. Many EAPs also offer work/life support, which can be a huge help during the holidays. This service can help employees locate financial counselors, childcare or other support services that they may need to help relieve some of the added holiday stress they are experiencing. HR and management can follow a number of other steps to help employees who experience difficulties during the holidays, such as:

  • Encourage employees to keep an eye out for each other and to help one another if they notice a colleague is going through a difficult period. Co-workers are often in closer proximity to other employees on a daily basis and will be the first to notice the key signs of stress, as opposed to Managers and HR professionals.
  • Consider expanding schedule flexibility to allow employees to attend holiday events at their children’s schools or other family obligations that typically arise during the holidays. For many people, family is the central focus during the holidays, so this can reduce the pressure many employees feel that can impact their performance at work.
  • Guide employees toward your company’s financial and physical wellness programs as well as the EAP. Having a resource to help manage money can help with stress related to financial concerns, and taking better care of themselves physically can also have an impact on their mental state.

With the holidays officially in full swing, many employees may be feeling the stress of the season weighing upon them. From anxiety over too much to do in too little time to the potential effects of more serious conditions, employees can experience any number of difficulties at this time of year. Employers can play a critical role in ensuring employees have support and are aware of resources that can provide assistance during this time and throughout the year.

About the Author

Norbert “Bert” Alicea, MA, CEAP, Executive Vice President of EAP+Work/Life Services at Health Advocate. Alicea is a Licensed Psychologist and premier trainer with over 25 years of experience in the EAP field. He has a specialization with executive coaching and management consultations in assisting with difficult workplace situations and also conducts corporate training locally and on a national level on topics including Harassment Awareness; Violence Prevention; Drug Free Workplace; DOT Compliance Training; and EAP Supervisor Training for High-Impact Referrals. For more information about Health Advocate and the EAP+Work/Life program, visit www.HealthAdvocate.com.

Valerie Bolden-Barrett
HRDive | December 15, 2016

Dive Brief:

  • Health Advocate released the results of a recent survey on communicating benefits, finding that 73% of employees prefer to talk live with someone about their benefits rather than use an automated system. Millennials were found to prefer live interaction even more than boomers and GenXers.
  • Infrequent communication about benefits was troubling to 41% of employees. Health Advocate says organizations sometimes partner with as many as six benefit vendors of medical, dental, eye care, life insurance and retirement plan coverage. Employees often find navigating through an array of vendors daunting.
  • Technology might have made live easier for people, but workers in the survey preferred getting information about benefits, health and wellness through live conversations. For help managing chronic conditions, 67% of men and 53% of women preferred live assistance versus 35% of women and 18% of men who prefer using apps.

Dive Insight: The survey points out that a one-size-fits all approach to communicating benefits could fail. Workplaces sometimes have three, possibly four, generations working together and therefore one approach that works for one group or individual might not work for another. Employers should use as many channels as is feasible to communicate benefits to employees.

This report comes at an awkward time for many third-party HR software providers. Firms like Zenefits, which recently launched its Z2 app, are depending on HR departments to make digital shifts in several areas, hoping to change the way employees interact with their employers.

Episode 2: Managing Holiday Stress in the Workplace

The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and excitement, but for many employees, it can also be a difficult and stressful season for any number of reasons. In this episode of Health Advocate’s Ask the Expert, Bert Alicea, Licensed Psychologist and Executive Vice President of Health Advocate’s Employee Assistance + Work/Life Program, discusses how to identify potential issues and help employees manage holiday stress.

Marlene Y. Satter
BenefitsPRO | December 14, 2016

Although technology has spawned multiple methods of communication with employees on benefits, that doesn’t mean they’re solving all the problems in conveying information back and forth between employer and employee.

In fact, generational and demographic differences, varying levels of comfort with a range of communication methods and the complexity of information all mean that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution in workplace benefits communication.

A study from West’s Health Advocate Solutions finds employees’ expectations cover a wide range in benefits, health and wellness program communication. As a result, human resources and benefits managers have to dig more deeply in finding ways to convey information to employees.

One finding which may surprise them is employees prefer live-person conversations, although some do prefer the option to use digital communication channels in certain benefits scenarios. And 41 percent of employees say their top complaint about employers’ benefits programs is that communication is too infrequent.

The top choice of employees for communicating about health care cost and administrative information is directly by phone (73 percent) with a live person; second choice was a website or online portal (69 percent), while an in-person conversation was the choice of 56 percent.

For information about physical wellness benefits, 71 percent opt for the website/online portal, while 62 percent want to talk to someone on the phone and 56 percent wanted an in-person conversation. Interestingly, 62 percent of men and 44 percent of women prefer in-person conversations.

For personal/emotional wellness issues, 71 percent want that chat with a person on the phone, 65 percent want an in-person conversation and just 60 percent want to interact with a website/online portal.

When it comes to managing a chronic condition, 66 percent prefer to talk to someone on the phone, 63 percent would prefer the website/online portal option and 61 percent want an in-person conversation. Sixty-seven percent of men, compared with 53 percent of women, prefer in-person conversations, while 35 percent of women, compared with 18 percent of men, prefer mobile apps.

And there are generational differences, too, with millennials wanting in-person interactions more than either Gen X or boomer colleagues. But they all want multiple options, and the ability to choose the one they prefer, rather than simply being restricted to a single method.

 Natasha Burton
LearnVest | November 4, 2016

Welcoming a new baby into your family is an exciting time in your life. In addition to choosing a nursery room color and buying all the necessary—and probably some not-so-necessary-but-really-adorable—baby gear, you’ll no doubt start thinking about the road ahead with your little one as part of your daily life.

And a key part of that new journey is making sure your baby is immediately covered by health insurance. Certainly, deciphering health plans isn’t as fun as, say, wondering what your kid’s personality will be like, but it’s a critical step. Here’s how to navigate your company’s health plans to pick the right one for your expanding family.

1. Evaluate both parents’ coverage options.

Before anything else, it’s important to take stock of your and your partner’s respective health care plans, especially if both of you get coverage through work. Pay special attention to the different coverage tiers available under your plans, says Kim Buckey, VP of client services at DirectPath, an employee engagement and health care compliance company. For example, some plans allow you to cover just yourself and one dependent, either a child or a spouse; others might require coverage for the whole family.

In some instances it may be worth having two separate policies. “If both parents are on the same policy, then adding a child can sometimes turn the policy into a family policy at a much, much higher cost,” says insurance agent Greg Sanders, a father of three. He notes that, for example, a small company he works with offers an Employee/Children policy that costs almost $600 a month less than a Family plan that also includes a spouse.

In cases like this, it could be worth having your spouse on his or her own company plan instead of putting everyone on the same policy. Furthermore, adding a spouse to your own plan could lead to a spousal surcharge, Buckey says, in which your plan may charge extra to cover a spouse who is offered coverage through another employer and has declined to use it.

Bottom line: Be sure to read the fine print.

You may also want to check to see if your preferred pediatrician and nearby hospital are better covered by one company plan or the other.

2. Look at the total cost of a given plan, not just the monthly premium.

When you weigh the pros and cons of a plan, be sure to add in copays, deductibles and all other medical fees that you’re likely to have with a particular plan. As Buckey puts it, a plan with a low premium isn’t effective if you can’t actually afford the out-of-pocket costs that go along with it.

While you may have heard that the Affordable Care Act requires that certain preventive checkups be covered, it’s important to talk with your pediatrician, your insurance company and the benefits expert at your office to get the full picture for your situation.

And be sure to factor in any potential visits to urgent care or the emergency room as well as lab tests and prescriptions, says Raffi Terzian, M.D., senior vice president of clinical operations and senior medical director at Health Advocate, a health advocacy and assistance company. “If available, a lower deductible plan with higher monthly premiums may be more cost-effective for a family with a new baby or young children, but it’s worth the time to run estimates on all available options to determine the best fit for you,” he adds.

Finally, when it comes to out-of-pocket costs, you’ll want to consider if the pediatrician you’d like to use and a nearby hospital are in-network, in case of emergency.

3. Understand what documents you need to add a newborn to your plan.

“Giving birth or adopting a child is a ‘qualifying life event,’ meaning that you have a certain window to elect coverage for your child even if it’s not open enrollment season,” Buckey says. New parents typically have about 30 days after the birth or adoption to enroll in an employer plan or 60 days to enroll with a marketplace insurer. If you become eligible for premium assistance through your state’s Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program, you have 60 days from becoming eligible to request enrollment in your employer’s plan. Coverage is retroactive to the date of birth or adoption in these cases.

You may not know in advance, of course, when this life event will occur—women rarely give birth on their due dates, after all. And since some plans require documentation within a certain time frame following the birth or adoption of a child in order to retroactively cover initial medical costs, it’s worth getting as much of the paperwork done ahead of time as possible.

Your HR department or insurance company may be able to provide enrollment or application forms in advance, Terzian says. “Since it can take time to receive a birth certificate or Social Security number, check if a letter from the hospital or other records confirming the birth can be used in the interim.”

4. Consider enrolling in your company’s Flexible Spending Account plan for Dependent Care.

If you know that you will need childcare, consider using a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account (FSA) to get a break on the cost. “The 2016 limit for FSA Dependent Care is $5,000 for individuals or married couples filing jointly,” says John F. Knolle, CFP®, a financial planner at Saranap Wealth Advisors, LLC and father to an 18-month-old. “The $5,000 you’re spending is actually buying about $7,140 worth of services, since you’re not paying out taxes, which is essentially like receiving a 30% discount.”

Also consider timing: As Knolle points out, dependent care FSAs are “use it or lose it” plans. If you have your baby later in the tax year, you may consider contributing less than if you have your baby in January or February.

If you have a high-deductible health plan, your employer may also offer a Health Savings Account (HSA), an account to which you can contribute up to $6,750 of your pre-tax dollars in 2016/2017 if you have a family. This money can be withdrawn tax-free as long as it is going toward eligible medical expenses. While various health-care items are included, keep in mind that everyday costs like childcare or diapers aren’t considered medical expenses, so it’s important to know what’s covered before deciding if an HSA is right for you.