Skip to content
Jennifer Benz September 12, 2017 5 min read

Lessons learned from 18 years of annual enrollments

My first summer working in employee benefits was 18 years ago.

Having just graduated from journalism school with little to no knowledge of anything related to big companies, health care, or employee benefits, I remember sitting wide-eyed as colleagues sketched on white boards and explained the key differences between HMOs and PPOs. All the complicated information we had to share during that fall’s open enrollment seemed like alphabet soup to me back then—a ton of random rules and acronyms that felt like they’d take years to decipher. Fortunately for me—with the expert guidance of some of the best pros in the business—it didn’t take long to get my arms around it all.

For most people, though, every year is like my time learning about employee benefits—tons of nonsensical acronyms, confusing plans, and overwhelming decisions. Plus, a lot of stress. To do our jobs well, benefit managers need to remember that just about everyone else is overwhelmed by benefits.

As we approach another open enrollment season, I’ve been thinking about those fundamental lessons as well as some of the more unexpected ones we’ve learned over the years. Whether you’re rolling out big changes or just coasting through a business-as-usual open enrollment, don’t underestimate the importance of this event for your organization and your employees. For your organization, this is one of the best—if not the best—times to remind employees about the tremendous investment you make in their health, well-being, and financial security. For your employees, this is when they need to make decisions that matter—for their health and day-to-day lives, but also to ensure they are covered in case the unthinkable happens. Here are five key reminders as you head into enrollment season.

1. This stuff matters.

This may be obvious but it bears repeating: The details that drive the decisions people make during open enrollment are a big deal. Which health plan employees choose dictates which providers they have access to, what they need to do if they get sick, and, especially, how much they’re on the hook for if something big happens with their health—whether joyous (hello, new baby!), traumatic (a bad car accident), or inevitable (the onset of a hereditary disease). With the move to consumer-driven health plans, and health plan add-ons like concierge and convenience programs, it is easy to gloss over the real value and purpose of health insurance—to protect people from financial ruin. Don’t forget to talk about that.

And it isn’t just health decisions that have big consequences. Do they have enough life insurance? Did they give that disability plan enough attention? Did they set up beneficiaries? Too often, those questions are not answered until it is too late. For those reasons alone, every year should be a year to get employees engaged.

2. A little extra time goes a long way.

We get it. Enrollment is a bear for your team. You have administrators, plan providers, carriers, your internal teams, and more to coordinate. It is easy to say we simply don’t have enough resources to do more. But just a little more effort can go a long way. What if you send out multiple versions of an email or mailer so employees get just the info that is relevant to them? Maybe you can do a couple more webinars (make them short!) to give employees more chances to listen to what’s changing? Can you put a little more time into making materials easier to scan and digest? What about bringing in your creative team or outside partners to spice things up with humor or more personality? With just a little extra effort, any of these changes can attract more attention and inspire further action.

3. Measure engagement beyond plan enrollment. 

You may want to move people into a new plan or introduce new programs to help drive down health care costs. But your end goal can’t be the only thing you measure if you want to understand how to get them there. Look at how employees are engaging with communications (website traffic, email open rates, meeting attendance, use of decision-support tools) to see if you’re reaching them in the first place. Review program participation to see if they are taking the actions that will lead to bigger outcomes. Then, look at the data that indicates the outcomes you’re trying to change in the long term, whether you’re focused on health, finances, productivity, or all of the above.

4. No amount of decision support will turn people into rational decision-makers.

I’d love to say that the perfect tool or video or series of questions can solve the problem of turning uneducated employees into smart, rational consumers of their health care. But I can’t. When it comes to many things—health, especially—decisions are driven by emotions. We are driven by fear, peer influence, and often just a desire to be done with the task of deciding. To bring people around to new ways of thinking about their health and finances (emotionally daunting topics!), you must speak to their emotions and rational thinking. Yes, you need good, clear tools and messages that explain how things work. But you also need to help employees feel confident that they are making the right choices for themselves. That’s why testimonials, employee profiles, and leader support can be so powerful—they all speak to our emotions and comfort level with new things.    

5. Don’t stop communicating just because enrollment is over.

As I write this post, I’m just back to the office from an enrollment kickoff meeting with a new client. This incredible, employee-focused organization offers amazing benefits and programs that help employees and their families in so many aspects of their lives. Our client introduced a lot of programs last year during enrollment, yet saw little to no utilization—despite the need for them. The reason: Communication stopped after enrollment. Yes, you definitely want to talk about the breadth of benefits and programs available during enrollment (even those that don’t require an election), but don’t let the communication stop at the end of the year. This is also why investing in a benefits website is so valuable.

With that food for thought, check out our comprehensive list of enrollment tips and best practices as you ramp up your enrollment communications.

Wishing you a smooth and successful enrollment season ahead.

Jennifer Benz

Jennifer Benz, SVP Communications Leader, has been on the leading edge of employee benefits for more than 20 years and is an influential voice in the employee benefits industry.