HR Drive: Managers should tackle benefits education, experts say

In the lexicon of phrases that inspire fear and loathing in workers’ hearts, “open enrollment” may certainly be there. 

Studies show that not only is there a gap in employee understanding of benefits, but workers may be pursuing or receiving more information on the subject ineffectively. 

According to a MetLife study on employee benefits trends, 44% of workers didn’t consult anyone when they enrolled in benefits last year. As one might suspect, the study showed this group was less likely to understand their benefits packages, more prone to financial anxiety and more worried about unexpected health issues arising.

Workers also reported wanting more time to “make the right choices,” MetLife researchers said. About a third of respondents owned up to procrastinating. In turn, the report confirmed that the employees that took the time to understand their employer’s offerings felt more informed, less anxious and more satisfied with their choices. 

Where do managers come in?

MetLife’s study found that 33% of workers prefer to hear from their managers regarding benefits education. Kim Buckey, the VP of client services at benefits company Optavise, understands why: “Particularly if you’ve ever had a bad experience with your benefits, the insurance company is ‘the enemy,’” Buckey said. She nodded to a lack of trust in insurance companies (which insurers globally indicate as a consumer issue).

“I think most people prefer to hear from their companies. The face of the company for most employees is their direct manager,” Buckey said.

Still, data shows that 40% of managers don’t feel confident being a role model for their direct reports regarding benefits selection. 

“Empowering managers with the training they need to serve as advisors and shepherd their direct reports throughout the election process will not only help to improve the overall employee experience, but it also aids in retention efforts,” MetLife researchers offered. The majority of respondents told MetLife that having a more supportive manager made them more loyal to their company.

By the numbers: workers turn elsewhere for benefits education


Workers who reached out to their friends, family and coworkers for insights on their benefits offerings, as opposed to HR, Optavise’s 2023 Healthcare Literacy report.

Workers that taught themselves about insurance terms and processes by going online or reading other materials.

Workers who received their information from HR, which is down 3% points from last year’s report — “and the lowest percentage reported in the past four years,” Optavise researchers said.

Workers who received information from their insurance representative.

Why manager training is non-negotiable here

Some managers agreed that they face barriers to educating workers on their benefits: 44% cited a lack of time, 39% said a lack of resources and 38% noted a lack of training in MetLife’s study.

“To help facilitate these conversations, employers should focus on arming people managers with the tools they need to help inform and educate their direct reports about benefits,” said Jamie Madden, SVP of Workforce Engagement and Benefits Connectivity at MetLife, in email.
She noted that employers have generally overlooked the role managers play in shaping employee experience. 

“Empowering managers with the right tools and training to serve as informed benefits advisors can go a long way in improving employees’ benefit comprehension, and ultimately enhancing the employee experience,” she said. 

Speaking about training specifically, Buckey suggested HR train managers on compliance right along with empathy and tact. 

“You’ve got to be careful because with HIPAA regulations, you don’t want to have too personal [a] conversation about benefits,” Buckey said. “But as a manager, you want to provide either some basic information or some direction as to where to get the information.” <

One of her clients recently rolled out an enhancement to their company’s mental health offerings; “They did a special manager training on what’s new here, some resources to share with direct reports, and what you should and shouldn’t say.”

Buckey’s rule of thumb: If a manager is discussing open enrollment and a worker starts volunteering personal health information, a manager shouldn’t necessarily engage in a conversation about that. “Most managers want to help their employees, but that could also leave them open to problems later on,” Buckey said, adding, especially if there’s ever an issue with an employee.

Instead, managers can guide or redirect the conversation by asking neutral questions, such as:
“How much healthcare did you use in the previous year? Do you think that is going to change?”
“If you were recently diagnosed with a condition, how much healthcare do you think you’re going to need in the coming year?”
“Are you more comfortable paying more out of your paycheck each month, or at the point of sale when you see a doctor or need a prescription?”

How managers can best deliver benefits info

About 70% of workers find online resources helpful, but more than 80% of workers find one-on-one conversations helpful, too, an Optavise report showed. These methods outpaced worker preference for email, social media and webinars, for example. 


Additionally, the report noted the distinct challenges of overseeing and managing deskless employees — particularly in the education, manufacturing and retail industries. Beyond posters in a break room, Buckey recommended managers make use of messaging platforms like Slack or Teams to educate employees. 

“Short and sweet little blurbs of information are really well received,” Buckey said.

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