A recent RTi Market Research study sponsored by Aflac Inc., “Health Care Reform and Enrollment,” found that 62% of employees say they plan to pay more attention to enrollment options and choices this year, compared to last year. Employees cited rising costs or the recession and concern about coverage and health care reform as the top reasons for their greater focus.

As many hard-working Americans look to trim expenses in a tight economy, they are approaching workplace benefits enrollment options with a more scrutinizing eye than ever. Benefits managers have a busy period ahead of them, with a barrage of questions from employees and a spike in hours of the day dedicated to benefits education. Despite the significant investment of time and effort for benefits education, human resources managers agree that it is critical to keep employees informed.

According to “Why Supplemental?” another recent study for Aflac by RTi Market Research:

o About 49% of employers strongly agree their employees need to have a better understanding of their benefits.

o About 43% of employers believe a well communicated benefits program leads to reduced turnover.

o Two out of five employees agree that a well communicated benefits program would make them less likely to leave their jobs.

Becoming the Teacher’s Teacher

By stepping in to help executives educate their employees, agents and brokers provide the tools needed to gain traction with employees and help employers become benefits heroes, further solidifying that client relationship.

Because employers are just as cautious about spending as their employees are, the following are some simple tips to help them put effective education initiatives in place without breaking the bank.

Prepare. Before agents and brokers begin working with clients, they’re put through product training. Being well equipped to discuss the advantages of owning certain policies is instrumental in educating employee clients and helping them achieve adequate coverage. Employers also need a strong grasp on what they are offering, to help employees reach their coverage goals. This is where insurance professionals can play a pivotal role in helping HR and benefits managers educate their employees. Agents and brokers should create an environment for open discussion by encouraging HR and benefits managers to ask questions and then going through offerings step by step with them. HR and benefits managers can then pass on what they learn when they talk to employees.

Identify and eliminate knowledge gaps. Many employees aren’t even aware of all the benefits offered by their employers. As an insurance professional, an obvious first step when engaging a client is to understand what they know-and do not know-about what is being offered. The same advice applies when employers engage employees about benefits.

Agents and brokers should suggest that companies begin to close the education gap by identifying how aware the workforce is about benefits offerings. Once gaps are identified, HR executives can find ways to make benefits information more robust and accessible.

One way of achieving accessibility is by turning to online venues where employees can gain access to information, tools and tips about their company’s benefits packages. Whether an intranet or Web site, it should be interactive and easy to use.

Engage. Insurance agents and brokers often fall into the same trap as benefits managers. Their overwhelming to-do lists leave room for only one discussion a year to review benefits. By remaining engaged throughout the year, agents avoid inundating HR managers with updates and new product information, gain the opportunity to strengthen client relationships and avoid being just another face in the benefits crowd. Staying in front of clients also gives agents the ability to learn of new developments, such as whether there are new hires or increased interest in certain types of policies.

The same advice applies to employers. Too often, they communicate benefits programs to employees only once a year, heaping on information during open enrollment. Employees already struggle to better understand even basic health care terms, so expecting them to retain large amounts of benefits information at once simply adds to their frustration and anxiety.

Employers should communicate different segments of their benefits program throughout the year. This results in a more digestible amount of information at each discussion, making open enrollment a smoother, easier process and strengthening HR’s reputation as a helpful, knowledgeable source of information.

Meet in person. An insurance professional would never simply hand product materials to a client and expect them to make an informed decision about purchasing a policy. Insurance agents and brokers understand the value of time, and investing it to explain options and walk through policies. This leads to a better informed client who is confident and personally invested in his or her decision.

This is a great lesson to share with employers. They should be wary of relying on only one message media to reach employees. Because employees are inundated with enrollment materials, they should have a variety of communications methods available, including e-mail, broadcast voice mails, online outlets and in-person meetings.

Agents and brokers should also offer to participate. Giving employees the opportunity to talk directly with benefits advisors and representatives from insurance carriers can be incredibly effective in education efforts. Benefits managers should be encouraged to use agents and brokers as resources.

Make the most out of benefits. “Why Supplemental?” also found that “taking care of our employees” is the most important objective employers cite for their benefits program. Agents can help them accomplish this by suggesting employers conduct informal audits of how benefits are being used by employees. For example, if an employer finds that fewer than half its employees are taking advantage of a routine physical provision, this may be an area to promote to improve wellness among its workers.

Grasp the opportunity. Employees are asking more questions. HR professionals and benefits decision-makers are finding themselves an even more highly sought after resource. Agents and brokers should seize their roles as the educator’s educator and encourage employers to communicate their benefits options more persuasively and more often. This dialogue will only lead to greater productivity across the entire workforce with less time to worry about outside financial pressures and more time to focus on work.

With such a strong focus on benefits education, it is imperative that insurance agents and brokers support HR and benefits executives in their education efforts. They have the experience, information and products that help ease the anxiety of employers and employees alike.

Ron Agypt is Aflac’s vice president of market development and broker sales, U.S.A. He can be reached via e-mail at brokerrelations@aflac.com