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Benefits Column

Helping Them See What They Get

A conversation with a group of high-performing undergraduates underscores the need for employers and HR to more effectively personalize the value of their healthcare offerings when speaking to first-time employees.

Monday, January 9, 2017
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I have been a public speaker throughout my career. My early themes were largely education-focused, informing healthcare and patient audiences about new and developing research. But, as time went on, the conferences and companies that requested my services wanted me to tackle two topics more than any other: employee-behavior change and statistics. And, ideally, the event planners wanted me to combine the two areas and address how facts could change behaviors.

If you know anything about me, you know this: I firmly believe facts do not change behavior. Time and experience taught me that we need to personalize our messages to adhere to employees' unique situations to capture their attention.

Advocating for mandated employee-behavior change also does not resonate with me. The primary reason came from my graduate training in physiology and biophysics. I know that attempting to alter people's behavior after they've reached their mid-20s is challenging at best. This is due to the "synaptic pruning" that peaks during the teenage years and ends somewhere between 18 and 25 years old. During this process, the brain removes neural pathways (synapses) that you aren't using. Having fewer brain synapses when you're an adult allows you to function more efficiently.

But, there's a downside to this neurological spring cleaning. The brain preserves the pathways associated with the habits you developed during your youth and early adulthood, while the synapses you didn't tap into are trimmed away along with the practices associated with them.

Picture yourself at 18 years of age. If you made good choices -- attended classes, studied, worked hard, ate well, exercised, and avoided adult beverages and tobacco -- you set yourself up for a lifetime of making what HR executives consider solid choices (particularly related to health insurance and expenses). If this doesn't effectively describe your younger self, it doesn't mean you can't learn better habits. It simply means maintaining those new practices will be more challenging for you.

Now, imagine my delight when I recently found myself in a conversation with college sophomores about selecting employee benefits. These students are part of a pilot study focused on keeping women in computer science and engineering programs where there is an enormous dropout rate by senior year. The 10 rising sophomores, juniors and seniors in the program completed summer internships a few months ago at brand-name technology companies. Their work was so outstanding that most are entertaining multiple job offers even though most are a few years from graduation.

I was intrigued that the students wanted to understand the different employee benefits packages touted by prospective employers -- but none of these brilliant women could figure them out.

Their primary concern was healthcare benefits. In some ways, the debates during the recent election season about the Affordable Care Act made them realize they had a lot to learn about health-insurance costs, how coverage worked and what it covered. (An interesting side note: All of them wanted their own health-insurance coverage and didn't plan on staying on their parents' coverage.)

I was in my ideal situation. I was talking with people whose brains were still being molded and who could easily learn new ways to evaluate risks and make choices.

Instead of starting our discussion with an explanation about how carriers and employers designed insurance plans, I found myself asking them what was important to them. Given where they are in their lives, they didn't initially care about whether certain physicians are in the insurance networks.

Since these students are currently in good health, I decided to ask them questions about healthcare options they might want for their families.

I asked them to consider if their grandparents, parents or siblings became seriously ill, would they want them to be under the care of their current physicians and hospitals in the area where they live? Would they want them to see local specialists recommended by their doctors?

We then talked about the alternative. Would they want their families to be able to go to the best specialists and hospitals for evaluation and potential treatment?

All of them wanted the best for their families. They knew they would help their loved ones by researching the people and places with the deepest expertise in the health challenges they were facing -- and then help them get in to see those specialists.

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Several of these undergraduates were considering employment in geographic areas far from where their families lived. If they became unexpectedly ill -- even for a short period -- and needed help, would they want the opportunity to be treated closer to where their families lived?

We used these examples to discuss narrow and local networks, centers of excellence and the option to be evaluated and treated anywhere in the country -- or even outside the United States. If these students believed these were important choices for their families, did they also value these same choices for themselves?

We could then talk about cost, why narrow networks and high-deductible health plans evolved as they have, and the reality that access to more options usually comes with a price. Given that these women are being offered high-paying jobs, they decided the potential cost for better health insurance was acceptable to them.

Now knowing that the ability to access best-in-class physicians and healthcare facilities was important to them, the students went back to their offer letters. None of the packages discussed any of those details. They simply described having "excellent health insurance."

The December 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics reports employer costs for benefits average 31.4 percent of total employee compensation.

HR and benefits leaders as well as hiring managers need to find new ways to personalize the value of their benefits packages. Only one of the many employers I talked with in preparation for this column said they walk their prospects through the benefits offering.

In this time of low unemployment, employers need to discover how to appeal to prospects' emotions as well as their heads when making employment offers. Employee-benefits packages may be one way to accomplish that.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.

 

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