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How to lower employee stress about health insurance

Health insurance is often the biggest-ticket item in any company’s benefits package, and the cost of health insurance rises on average each year, historically.

Companies spend a lot of money, time and effort to make their benefits competitive and provide quality group health insurance plans to employees. But perhaps not enough time is spent educating employees about their available options and helping them navigate what those options mean for them and their families.

A recent Business News Daily article underscores the importance of educating employees about their health insurance benefits. Not having a clear understanding of what their health insurance plan covers until they find themselves at the doctor’s office or hospital isn’t ideal. You give your employees an advantage when you inform and empower them to make prudent decisions regarding coverage and treatment options.

Why health insurance is a stressful topic for employees

Health insurance can be complicated, and often the differences between plans can be subtle.

  • People fear making a “wrong” decision that they’ll later regret – usually after their health situation changes or a medical emergency happens, and when they need their health insurance more than ever.
  • There’s a lot of anxiety about the unknown. If someone doesn’t have a strong grasp of how a particular health insurance plan works, they may not even be sure what they signed up for when a health matter comes up.
  • It boils down to this: Everyone wants to make smart financial choices. No one wants a surprise adverse financial impact, especially in the midst of a health issue.

Lack of direct control can be an issue as well. Much employee stress arises when health insurance plans change unexpectedly – especially when they’re scaled back. For instance, maybe employees now have to pay more out of pocket or their trusted, long-time physician is no longer in network under the revised plan.

The challenge for employers

Understandably, employees want more assistance in wading through options and making a decision.

However, there are limits to the help that companies can realistically provide; no business should try to tell employees which plan to select.

Business leaders need to take appropriate measures to protect their companies from disgruntled employees or, in some cases, adverse legal action. For instance, if an employee decides that a recommended health insurance plan isn’t beneficial to them for some reason, you don’t want them to have grounds to accuse your company of leading them astray and coercing them into a “bad” decision. Even if the employee has no legal footing, they can still develop a negative attitude and resentment toward the company.

That’s why business leaders and human resources (HR) departments generally don’t want to tell any employee which health insurance plan to pick. There are too many variables and unique factors in a person’s life that determine whether or not a plan is optimal for an employee and their family.

A company’s appropriate role is to educate employees to be thoughtful consumers and guide them toward appropriate resources. Ultimately, the decision should be left up to the employee.

How employers can do better

Still, employers must take these concerns about health insurance seriously. After all, companies want:

  • Employees and prospective hires to view their health insurance plans as a valuable benefit, and to enjoy peace of mind
  • A good return on their substantial investment in the form of successful recruitment, satisfied employees and high retention
  • A focused, productive workforce – not employees who are distracted and worried about other issues to the extent that work performance suffers

Keeping in mind the narrowly defined role companies should be taking in the employee decision-making process, what exactly can companies do to help employees cut through all the confusion and stress about health insurance?

1.      Explain everything thoroughly during new-hire orientation

During your new-hire orientation, don’t rush through the discussion about health insurance or, worse, just briefly mention it as part of a larger benefits package. Use this opportunity – when employees are brand-new to your company, eager to learn and you have their attention – to describe in detail the health insurance plans your company offers.

  • Explain the differences between plan options.
  • Walk through a demonstration of your company’s health insurance or benefits portal (if you have one) and make sure employees are aware of all the services and conveniences your company offers.
  • Instruct employees on how and when to enroll.
  • Allow audience Q&A and answer general questions.
  • Refer them to specific people and resources for personal or more in-depth questions, as well as plan advice and assistance with finding in-network providers.

2.      Provide employees with contacts and resources

The most appropriate people and resources to assist with employee questions about health care coverage depend on the particular way in which your employees receive benefits. At a high level, employees might be directed to the:

  • HR benefits specialist
  • Professional employer organization (PEO) service team or dedicated HR specialist (if your company outsources certain HR functions to a PEO, and the PEO provides benefits to your employees)
  • Contact center or member services at the insurance carrier

Provide your employees with at least a few different contact options, if possible.

3.      Make information available 24/7

Have a secure online portal that contains everything employees want to know about their benefits, including health insurance. A portal houses all this information in one central location, where it’s available any time.

With a benefits portal, employees can do many tasks, including:

  • View and compare health insurance plans
  • Enroll in a health insurance plan when eligible
  • Add covered dependents
  • Switch plans when eligible
  • Access resources and services aimed at improving health and wellbeing, such as workplace wellness programs
  • Find key contacts, such as the insurance carrier’s contact center or member services representative
  • Sign on to the carrier’s website for claims information and to track deductibles (if the employer’s benefits portal provides these links)

Some companies have even incorporated decision-making tools that ask employees questions about their individual circumstances and use artificial intelligence to recommend a health insurance plan to them based on their answers.

With all this information easily accessible, employees can feel more knowledgeable, empowered and in control.

4.      Deliver ongoing education

Employee education about health insurance doesn’t end at orientation. There will always be evolving personal circumstances, plan updates and a changing regulatory landscape to spur new questions.

Traditionally, open-enrollment meetings and general informational meetings haven’t been that well attended by employees. Why?

  • Employees do want assistance with understanding and selecting health insurance plans, but these lecture-style meetings are typically perceived as dry and include general information that can be read online.
  • Many people are averse to asking questions about health insurance, as it relates to their personal situation, in front of others. Instead, they prefer to ask questions privately in a one-on-one, confidential setting.

It’s important to note that in our post-pandemic world, these large on-site meetings are increasingly less common.

What else can you do?

  • Think about the most common concerns employees have. What topics are especially timely or are highly relevant to the health insurance plans your company offers?
  • Does the presentation convey something new to capture their interest?
  • Consider how you can present information in an engaging way. For example, host webinars or lunch-and-learns. Bring in external experts and insurance carrier representatives.
  • Present information in short, bite-sized chunks and focus on a single, specific topic for the best results.
  • Craft engaging communications to invite employees to the presentations. Provide an overview of what they’ll learn and specific questions that will be answered.
  • Make the presentation interactive, especially if it’s in a virtual environment. Give employees the ability to ask questions anonymously, or provide them with contacts with whom they can follow up later.

5.      Communicate regularly

It’s important to communicate regularly, especially about:

  • Open enrollment
  • Upcoming changes to health insurance plans
  • Personalized reminders for employees to take certain actions
  • Educational opportunities related to health insurance

This is so employees see you as an advocate for their knowledge and health, and as a proponent of transparency.

If changes to health insurance plans are coming, get out in front of them with as much advance notice as possible so employees don’t feel caught off guard. Implement a communications campaign to give employees numerous opportunities to understand the changes coming and how those changes will affect them. This is also a proactive move to ward off any anger or resentment based on misunderstandings.

6.      Leverage different channels to reach employees

We all have our preferences – some of us like to read on a screen; others like to hold printed materials. Some of us work at the office; others work remotely at home.

To reach all of your employees, consider using a variety of communication channels to raise the likelihood that they receive the message and remain informed:

  • Email
  • Online portal
  • Company intranet
  • Printed materials available at the office
  • Printed materials mailed to employees’ residences

7.      Promote your company’s employee assistance program

What if your employees have a health-related problem – but they’re not sure where to go or what to do to seek help – and they don’t feel comfortable reaching out to HR or the insurance carrier to ask? Or maybe they need guidance with their relationships or finances – or help finding dependent care for their children or aging parents?

That’s where employee assistance programs (EAPs) play a vital role. An EAP is a third-party, confidential resource that can connect employees to many types of professionals to assist with diverse issues.

For example, during and since the COVID-19 pandemic, employers have become much more attuned to employees’ mental health. With mental health struggles increasingly viewed as less stigmatizing and more commonplace within the workplace, company leaders are having open and frank discussions about the need to proactively address issues before they escalate into major problems.

Treatment for mental health issues is often covered under health insurance plans. However, an EAP can serve as an initial resource for:

  • Connecting employees with in-network mental health professionals who can help them (often with no co-pay for a specified number of visits)
  • Obtaining tips to manage the underlying stressors that contribute to poor mental health

Additionally, EAPs can connect employees to nutritionists, clinicians and other professionals who can help them proactively cease unhealthy habits and lifestyles, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, smoking or substance abuse. By implementing positive changes, employees can work toward using their health insurance less, potentially saving them (and the company) money, and thereby reducing some of the stress associated with health insurance costs.

Your EAP should be easily accessible within a benefits portal or company intranet.

Don’t let employees suffer in silence. Champion your EAP so they know they have a confidential, safe environment in which to seek help.

Summing it all up

It’s clear that employees want more help with employer-provided health insurance to better understand offerings, and reduce the fear of wrong decisions and unexpected changes to their health plan – all of which could mean big costs for individuals and families. Although employers should refrain from explicitly recommending a specific health insurance plan to employees, there are many meaningful steps that leaders can take to mitigate employee stress about health insurance, which we have outlined here.

For more information about best practices in delivering quality employee benefits, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to employee benefits.