Critical illness cover is a crucial benefit, but many staff do not even realise they have it. Nick Martinuale looks at strategies to ensure employees appreciate what’s there for them

health insurance

For many organisations, group risk products – those that typically are made up of life insurance, income protection and critical illness cover, or a combination of these – represent the majority of their total employee benefit spend. So it must be particularly galling when employees fail to understand, or appreciate just what they are receiving.

Employers are losing out, too. Research by Cass Business School commissioned by Unum in 2013 revealed that not effectively telling staff what perks they are entitled to costs UK businesses around £2.7m a year, largely as a result of increased staff turnover and higher levels of absence.

Those which offer income protection are particularly missing out, suggests Steve Herbert, head of benefits strategy at Jelf Employee Benefits.

“Employers who offer this cover are in the minority, so if they really put some effort into the communications they can get the message across to their employees and strengthen retention, recruitment and even engagement,” he says.

A good starting point for any employer looking to improve how they tell their workforce about group risk products is to clearly identify exactly what it is they are offering, and to whom.

“For many employers the current benefit programme is likely to have been borne out of evolution and circumstance rather than the result of a cohesive, informed strategy,” says Mark Witte, principal of Aon Employee Benefits.

“High on the list of priorities for any HR or reward director should be an exercise to build a full picture of the benefit spend and ascertain which employees would have access to what levels of provision.”

He adds that this should also extend to looking at how benefits are being used and by which parts of the workforce, which can help to tailor communications.

Any communication around group risk benefits needs to explain exactly how these products work. “If employees aren’t familiar with the different types of cover available to them, it’s hard for them to understand why they’re useful,” points out Linda Levesque, vice president, corporate benefits at Unum.

“To initiate a conversation about income protection – for example, perhaps ask employees how long they think they’d be able to support themselves and their families if they stopped receiving their salary tomorrow,” she says.

This should also include explaining some of the finer details, suggests Paul White, senior consultant at PSHPC.

“Poor communication can lead to the true value of the benefits not being understood; uninsured liabilities falling on the employer; and financial consequences befalling members,” he says. One example would be stressing that people would typically remain employees while they are in receipt of income protection, for example.

Plan your strategy

Much of how successful such initiatives are will come down to how well employers deliver their various communications.

Chris Morgan, a manager at Ellipse, believes variety is the name of the game.

“Create a plan that uses different mediums. A single email or even a benefits fair are just not going to be enough,” he says. “Some will prefer online material and email communications, while others value face-to-face interaction, so your strategy needs to reflect this.”

Pauline Iles, a senior risk benefits consultant at Quantum Advisory, also advises a range of approaches, including mandatory response emails where staff have to verify that they have read the content.

She also advocates using posters and holding benefit fairs, which could be run in conjunction with providers. “Invite them to bring literature, some freebies and their enthusiasm,” she suggests. “Include a competition and some light refreshments to promote interest.”

HR and reward professionals could also draw on the expertise of their colleagues in the marketing department, says Levesque. “Employers need to be more creative, using a variety of methods and times to get the information across,” she says.

“They need to communicate their employee benefits package in the same way that marketing would plan and execute an external advertising campaign.”

Engaging with line managers is another important aspect of any strategy, and can ensure they understand how to maximise the benefit the employer can get from its group risk products.

“The best way you can do that is through a webcast,” says Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life. At the end of these managers can either accept or decline that they have understood the message, he adds, or click another option requesting more information.

Those clicking or declining they have understood can then have a direct conversation with HR, which can also help to trigger a better understanding of the products themselves. “This completes the loop nicely, because our fear is that a lot of employers aren’t using the free vocational rehabilitation services that are available to them,” adds Avis.

“GRiD [Group Risk Development] reported only 1,529 people were returned to work in 2014 as part of their annual claims review, but that is from 2.08 million employees and 17,119 employers.”

Sometimes, products will come with extra tools that can help reduce absence or prevent smaller issues spiralling into larger ones. Income protection, for instance, often offers early intervention helplines for employees, as well as additional resources for managers, such as mental health first aid training.

“Mental health is now one of the highest causes of sickness absence in the UK, so it is important for line managers to be well equipped in spotting the first signs and symptoms, and have the confidence to intervene when necessary,” says Levesque.

Help at hand

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are sometimes offered by insurers to all staff, regardless of whether they are all covered by other group protection policies.

“Here, a segmented campaign can be created so that employees with access to the EAP but not to other benefits still receive communications that are relevant to them,” says Morgan. “Just because they aren’t insured doesn’t mean they should be forgotten about.”

He suggests adopting a similar approach towards communicating EAPs as with wider initiatives. “The odd poster in a kitchen is not going to draw in the crowds,” he says. “Consistent reiteration is needed to raise awareness and change employee behaviour. Use everything in the communication toolbox: leaflets, social media, news coverage, case studies, award entries, posters, benefit fairs and emails.”

Where only some employees are covered it can be difficult to communicate the benefits of an EAP without alienating those who are not, says Avis, unless businesses resort to mailing communications to home addresses.

But where they are available to all employees, there is plenty to talk about.

“While EAPs have traditionally been seen as counselling services, more recently they’ve been used as work or life services, including helping staff with queries about buying their first home, dealing with landlord disputes or even trying to get fitter,” he says.

But they also help those who are struggling with other concerns. “One of the best places to put an EAP poster is on the back of a toilet door, because that’s where people go when they’re upset,” he adds.

Those organisations that can successfully engage their workforces with group risk policies should start to see better take-up – with all the associated benefits in reduced staff absence – but also greater appreciation among employees.

“Just on income protection alone there is £100 worth of value for every policyholder,” Avis says. “That’s an amazing thing to be able to add to a total reward statement.”