The Benefits Life

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Batten down the hatches! Open enrollment season is about to begin at most companies—it’s usually during the month of November—and it can get intense. If you work in human resources, it's time to get ready and organized for the onslaught of work.

While the choices may be confusing for employees and a challenge for you to explain, there are some simple steps you can take to keep the process manageable and, occasionally, even fun.

For some expert perspective, The FruitGuys Magazine contacted Jennifer Benz, the CEO and founder of Benz Communications, a San Francisco–based communications and marketing agency that specializes in employee benefits communications. Here are eight steps you can take now to make open enrollment go smoothly.

1. Start Talking about Open Enrollment Before It Starts
It’s better to casually ramp up employee awareness in the weeks before enrollment actually launches, rather than drowning staff in a firehose blast of information on November 1. “HURRY! TIME IS ALMOST UP AND THEN YOU’RE DOOMED!” is an eye-catching message, but perhaps not conducive to the measured consideration that you want your staff to give to making enrollment choices.

Ideally, the casual stream of information about benefits continues year-round without stopping. Benz suggests that it’s more effective to communicate information to employees in bite-size amounts throughout the year rather “than overload them with a 20-page benefits guide. Remember that the majority of employees don’t think about their benefits until they need to use them.”

2. Build a Communication Strategy
Benz explains that a coherent strategy will help you “articulate and meet your goals” and offers a free road map for how to build one on her firm’s website. “A communication strategy outlines why you’re communicating and how you will do it. It doesn’t need to be overly complicated, but it does need to outline your benefits goals, your target audience, how you’ll reach them, and when you need to start engaging with them.”

3. Enlist Allies
Managers of individual departments are the main gateway for communication with employees, and are often the first people to hear benefits questions. They probably also know more about the financial and medical status of their own staff and can help you find the best solutions to their concerns. Meet with department heads in advance, answer their questions, and let them know you’re ready to help address any complicated queries.

Benz suggests keeping managers apprised of any benefits changes well in advance, year-round, and giving them tip sheets to help answer common questions.

Make use of your internal communications staff, who can help you craft messages to help get the word out. People often forget that their in-house web designers know a lot about what kind of content works online.

4. Tell Stories
It doesn’t matter how detailed your information is if employees get bored or overwhelmed and tune it out. Be sure to avoid jargon and keep descriptions simple; Benz recommends writing your materials at an eighth-grade level.

People are always more interested in hearing stories about people than in reading lists of numbers. So present scenarios. Give examples of fictional employees in typical situations—young marrieds with kids, people with children headed for college, someone with serious health challenges or expensive medications, those with spouses who also have complementary workplace benefits or are on Medicare.

Benz says that “Health care topics [in particular] will always be emotional. People-like-me stories can help employees find a hypothetical peer that’s in a similar life situation to them—think age, covered family members, and the type/frequency of care they use—so they can decide if a plan is even right for them before they enroll.”

5. Web, Print, and In Person
The Internet is a great resource, and posting a comprehensive set of pages detailing all of your benefit programs is essential. Benz calls a benefits website the single most important investment an organization can make in their benefits communication strategy.

But you can’t rely only on a website if you want to communicate effectively. Printed brochures may work better for some older staff, and can capture the attention of employees eating lunch, waiting for a meeting to begin, or suffering the agony of a dead smartphone battery.

Live presentations are also essential so that you can answer questions, whether you schedule a large benefits fair or drop in on weekly departmental meetings.

6. Think About Different Audiences
One size does not fit all when it comes to communication. Employees of different generations, backgrounds, and educational levels won’t respond the same way to the same material, so you’ll need to adapt your message and media choices to different groups of staff.

And don’t forget spouses! Benefit choices are major financial decisions that your employees should be making together with their partners, so your messages should be targeted at them as well.

7. Keep It Fun
Yes, this can be a stressful process. Many people are uncomfortable talking about money at all, much less making complicated financial decisions. All of these intricate benefit elections can start to feel like doing your taxes or balancing a checkbook—a chore to dread.

Remember, though, that when you're distributing informational pamphlets or free swag like fridge magnets that remind people about enrollment dates, you’re basically helping people understand and navigate the enrollment process." It should be pleasant! Making sure everyone has health care is just another way that your employer is taking care of its workers, and that’s something everyone likes to hear.

To heighten the positive mood, include some more immediate giveaways. Bring some fresh-baked cookies to your benefits fair, or some delicious fresh fruit. Another inexpensive crowd-pleaser is free massages. Hire a local massage therapist to set up a chair and offer free five-minute back rubs during your benefits presentation. When you announce your meeting, make sure these goodies get prominent billing.

8. Practice Self-Care
Yes, this may be a hectic time, but very soon it will all be over, and you’ll head into the happy holiday season having helped your colleagues get the most out of their benefits. That’s something to feel very good about.

Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). He writes regularly about health and science for the Oregon Bioscience Association and about football for,, IgglesBlitz, and His work has also appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Oregonian newspaper.


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