The fall 2021 enrollment season is a huge opportunity for employers

October 19, 2021
woman working at computer

Data from a new employee survey suggests that the pandemic, despite its considerable challenges, presents a significant opportunity for benefits enrollment. Workers are newly mindful of their physical, mental, and financial health; employers should take advantage of this new receptiveness heading into enrollment season.

Worker awareness, combined with advances in HR tech, has created a particularly positive environment for employers to engage employees around benefits, which can in turn influence recruitment, retention, and productivity.

A majority of U.S. workers say they are more interested in their benefits this year

In a recent survey of U.S. full-time workers:1

  • Nearly 70% reported that they are planning to spend more time reviewing their benefit options this year compared to last year
  • Sixty-five percent said they were more interested in their benefits because of the pandemic
  • About half of U.S. workers said they planned to add a new benefit during enrollment for 2022 because of the pandemic

Millennials, who constitute the majority of America’s current workforce, reported feeling the most impacted by the pandemic. Three-quarters of them said they’ve experienced financial strain or hardship due to COVID-19 and over half said they were concerned about their mental health.

The oldest Millennials are only now entering the prime years of their career while the youngest Millennials have just taken their first steps up the corporate ladder. It’s essential that employers address their concerns and support their well-being if they want to compete for talent in an increasingly tight labor market.

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Millennials, who constitute the majority of America's current workforce, reported feeling the most impacted by the pandemic.1

Benefits offer a solution to impacted employees, but many struggle to understand their options

Employees already see benefits as an important part of their compensation, with about two-thirds reporting that their benefits packages make them more productive, more likely to stay with an organization, and more likely to recommend that organization to others.

In the survey, however, more than half (56%) of employees said they found it difficult to select their benefits.1 In another 2021 survey, only a third (33%) of employees reported having a solid understanding of their benefits.2

The gap between value and understanding presents a major opportunity for employers, one they must seize if they want to recruit and retain talent.

To create a successful strategy for this fall’s enrollment season, employers should focus on addressing employees’ most pressing needs and ensuring they feel confident and empowered to make the right choices.

Prioritize mental health

Mental health hasn’t always been at the center of employee benefits, but the pandemic has shown how important it is to support employees through times of uncertainty and stress. That will remain true even once the pandemic has receded.

In our survey, 42% of workers in the survey expressed worry about their mental health, and that jumped to 55% among Millennials.1

man working at computer

Fortunately, the pandemic has also accelerated the shift to digital solutions for behavioral health. This tech makes it much simpler for employees to determine what help they need and quickly access services. That may mean interacting with a virtual coach, or it might mean a full therapy session using telehealth. Employers are also partnering with consumer apps and services — including meditation apps like Headspace or Calm — to help workers cope.

Regardless of approach, employers must put mental health at the forefront of their benefits package. The pandemic has everyone rethinking their priorities with a strong focus on personal fulfillment and work-life balance.

An employee that doesn’t feel supported during difficult times is likely to become less productive or look for a new position elsewhere.

Invest in benefits education and communication

Open enrollment only lasts a few weeks, but the stakes feel very high to employees.

“Open enrollment can be kind of an emotional activity for people,” according to Steve Boese of H3 HR Advisors. “Because you get that one shot at it, you have to get it right, and it impacts your family potentially.”

It’s important to engage employees year-round so they are prepared to make the right decisions for themselves and their families when open enrollment arrives.

A wide variety of approaches is best. In our survey, employees ranked their three top choices for education: benefits portal or website, an in-person counseling session, and printed materials.1

“How do you best reach your employees? Meet them where they’re at,” says Marilyn Miller, Chief People Officer of Anaplan. “Take a multipronged approach to enrollment and education of your workforce.”

And that engagement shouldn’t just be one way: Input from your employees, as well as other key decision makers (like spouses or partners), is crucial. This is also an opportunity for the employer to learn from their employees and to make them feel like they are participating in major company decisions.

In our survey, 94% of workers whose employers sought their feedback on benefits said they felt their needs were taken into consideration. Only half of those whose employers did not seek feedback said the same.1

“Throughout the year, we’re listening to our employees,” Miller says. “Of the things that we’re offering, what seems to create the most value? What kind of adoption and experience do our employees have with our benefits enrollment? That lets us be super intentional about why we make what choices, how we prioritize where we are going to invest. “

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It’s important to engage employees year-round so they are prepared to make the right decisions for themselves and their families when open enrollment arrives.

Leverage technology to make enrollment a snap

Once you’ve created a top-notch benefits package and executed a multimodal communication plan to ensure employees understand what you’re offering, all that’s left is to create a seamless enrollment experience. It’s another way to show employees you value their time and energy.

“Carriers have a lot of built-in and off-the-shelf-ready, ready-to-be-customized tools to support your benefits experience,” says Julie Schwetz, Assistant Vice President at Unum. “From benefits education [in] hard copy or online to actual enrollment selection support via online portals or other means.”

Employees have expressed a preference for learning about their benefits from a website or online portal. Thus, the right HR tech solution can provide them with the easy, intuitive experience they’ve come to expect from the consumer market.

“The ability to support people through [enrollment] with confidence and [provide] technology that can support them, help them make the right decisions, is so, so important,“ said Steve Boese. “Benefits technology providers are getting much better at meeting those needs.”

Conclusion

The pandemic has scrambled business-as-usual in the workplace and employees have reassessed their priorities, including around their benefits. In order to recruit and retain workers in this new world of work, employers must fully engage their employees to learn what matters to them and to show them the considerable value of the benefits on offer.

You may be interested in

1. Colonial Life 2021 Employee Enrollment Survey of 1,462 U.S. workers. Unum Group. August 2021.

2. Interntional Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, “Trends in Benefit Open Enrollment and Communication: 2020 US
Survey Report.” September 2020. Available at: https://www.ifebp.org/store/Pages/open-enrollment-communication-survey.aspx.