Most workers value benefits

Majority of workers wouldn’t trade benefits for $20,000 in cash: survey

“Show me the money!” was the catch-phrase made famous by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire. Employees on the prowl for a new job these days might be heard shouting, “Show me the health benefit plan!” given the results of the sanofi-aventis Healthcare Survey 2007.

Sixty-one per cent of respondents in the 10th annual survey said they would pass up the chance to pocket $20,000 from their employers in order to hang onto their health benefit plans — a finding that may come as a revelation to some HR professionals.

Employees who place a high value on their plans reported correspondingly high levels of job satisfaction, according to the survey of 1,700 group insurance plan members conducted by Ipsos-Reid.

“What’s really important is how a ‘good health plan’ is central to the definition of a ‘good job,’” said Chris Bonnett, survey advisory board member and president of H3 Consulting/businesshealth in Toronto. “It can play a role in employees’ decisions to stay on or move on because it is linked to how well other job factors are rated.”

Health benefit plans are so highly regarded — most employees opted for one over the cash knowing the sticker price may be less than $20,000 — they can be a deciding factor in whether employees postpone retirement.

Benefits can help postpone retirement

Almost two-thirds of respondents age 55 and older confirmed they would continue working or return to the workforce after retirement if their employer would offer them prescription drug or dental coverage into their golden years.

“If employers are looking for ways to postpone retirement, particularly in industries where there are skills shortages, there can be a considerable advantage to offering continued benefits,” said Bonnett.

Employees understand ‘concept of risk’

Respondents who opted for the plan over cash said they did so because benefits give them a sense of security and peace of mind, knowing health care could potentially cost them a lot more in the long run.

“These survey responses show that employees understand the concept of risk,” said Dan Poole, vice-president, strategic planning implementation, group and business insurance at Desjardins Financial Security in Toronto. “Employers need to take this to heart and consider how they can give employees access to programs that offset or hedge against risk. One way is to offer voluntary programs, like critical illness, which can be done in a very cost-effective manner.”

Privilege versus entitlement

Leveraging the perceived value of health benefit plans is especially important, with almost 80 per cent of respondents agreeing government should set minimums for health benefit coverage.

Employers need to do a better job of getting out the message that plans are an assured voluntary commitment, said Bonnett, emphasizing privilege over entitlement.

So what’s the catch? Health plans can be strategic recruitment and retention tools only if they are communicated well. Most respondents who said their company does a good job communicating benefit plans are also satisfied with their job (94 per cent), whereas employees who said their plan messaging is poor were twice as likely to have considered leaving their job in the last year.

Art Babcock, vice-president of Aon Consulting in Edmonton and a survey advisory board member, cautioned that, based on what he’s heard, he wasn’t sure “employees have as good a grasp of their plans as they’d like to believe they do or say they did in this survey.”

Case in point: While an ever-increasing number of employees report their employers do a good job of communicating their plans (86 per cent in 2007 compared to 73 per cent in 2000), there is only a slight change in the proportion of employees who said they actually understand their plan (68 per cent in 2007 compared to 61 per cent in 1999.)

Health benefit plans should be communicated at least annually, using a variety of media such as the intranet and mail, said Babcock. They should also be easy to use. (See the sidebar for more tips.)

The better a plan is understood and thus valued, the more agreeable respondents are in being obliged to help control plan costs, said Bonnett.

“These connections are important for employers. High-quality communications that improve understanding should also speak to cost issues and the need for plan members to control their use of the plan. Strong plan communications can help create reasonable expectations about current and future coverage.”

More employees (78 per cent) indicated a personal responsibility for helping their employer cover the costs of plans this year than in 2005 (73 per cent). Additional insurance plan items members would be willing to help pay for include: critical illness insurance (62 per cent); additional prescription drug coverage (59 per cent); dental coverage for high-cost procedures (56 per cent); long-term care (53 per cent); and additional coverage for paramedical practitioners (51 per cent).

But those respondents most desiring government intervention were also the most likely to be willing to add on more benefits. This implies that better communication of what’s already in a plan could prevent any insecurity or unnecessary top-ups, particularly where a health benefits plan is a key recruitment and retention tool.

Lesley Young is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

Tips for employers

Get the benefits message out

Employers can’t expect employees to know the health benefit plan verbatim. The key is to make sure employees can access it readily. Here are a few tips:

• Accommodate diversity. Chris Bonnett, president of H3 Consulting/businesshealth in Toronto, once worked with an employer that printed its benefit plan in 26 different languages, ensuring its extremely diverse workforce all had access.

• It’s a good idea to send out annual letters to employees’ homes indicating the main coverage components of a particular plan including cost. Art Babcock, vice-president of Aon Consulting Inc. in Edmonton, said many companies are realizing that by sending communications to employee’s homes, plan members’ dependents also gain access to valuable information.

• Test employees on their health benefits plan knowledge to learn whether the company is communicating as well as it should, said Babcock.

• Benchmark the plan against others in the industry and share the results with staff.

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