Design for Engagement

Step 1: Understand Barriers

Employees, especially low-wage workers, experience numerous barriers to effective engagement with financial health benefits. Listening to your employees is an important first step in designing for engagement.

Step 1: Understand Barriers

4 Common Barriers to Engagement

It’s important to understand common challenges that can lead to low engagement with financial health benefits. These include behavioral tendencies and cognitive biases that are common to all people, as well as specific barriers that low-wage workers in particular tend to face. HR systems design and implementation also play an important role in enabling – or preventing – people from taking advantage of the programs and benefits available to them.

Our research identified four common barriers to engagement that can be mitigated with thoughtful benefits design and communication:

1. Benefits are often difficult for employees to understand.

For many employees, navigating benefits can be time-consuming and overwhelming. Benefits communications are often filled with jargon and technical terms which employees struggle to understand. Employees may also suffer from choice overload when faced with complex benefits decisions. Choice overload can occur both when people are faced with too many choices, and when presented with options too complex or challenging to compare.

Navigating benefits is often even more challenging for low-wage employees. They are less likely to have access to a computer or time to learn about benefits during the workday, and may lack support from people they can relate to during times that are convenient for them. Some low-wage employees fear that the wrong decision might cost them money, rather than help them save, especially when choosing not to enroll will leave them with more take-home pay. For those living without a financial cushion, these decisions have significant consequences. Without support to navigate their options, it feels safer to opt out.

Employee Voices

“During onboarding, you want to make the best decision, but you don’t really know how. If you’re rushed, you’re not going to make the best decisions.”

“When you become an adult, you get a job. You know that benefits are good, but you quickly realize that you don’t understand the language.”

2. Employees may not see the value that their benefits can offer.

Even when employees understand their benefits, they may still not see how those benefits will deliver meaningful value to their life. This is reinforced by present bias and loss aversion which together can discourage people from paying for benefits when the value they will gain from them is uncertain or is far in the future.

This may be especially true for low-wage employees, particularly those who struggle to pay bills. Even savings benefits like 401(k)s and HSAs can be seen as risky because they limit employees’ flexibility and ability to deal with unforeseen expenses. They may see benefits as being for higher-income people, not for “people like them,” even benefits designed or intended to meet their needs.

Employee Voices

“I’m not sick all the time, but the money [for an HSA] would be taken from my paycheck all of the time.”

“I’m not making so much money that I need a financial counselor. Will they teach me how to make more money?”

3. Employees may struggle to access their benefits.

For some employees, barriers related to language, culture, and accessibility can make it challenging to access the benefits available to them. This is especially true for low-wage employees, who are more likely than other workers to be immigrants, have limited English proficiency, or have a disability.19 These employees may struggle to use benefits and supporting resources presented through typical channels or formats.

Benefits design and implementation also plays an important role in enabling or preventing people from taking advantage. For example, benefits that require employees to pay upfront for expenses and wait for reimbursement can create barriers for employees living paycheck to paycheck. In addition, many employees can’t access benefits until they’ve hit certain milestones, particularly new hires and part-time workers. Without an easy way for those employees to keep track of their eligibility for benefits, they can go unused or underutilized.

Employee Voices

“[Benefits are] like if you went to a really cool restaurant, but you didn’t see anybody else around and couldn’t see what the dishes looked like. And they give you a big menu in another language with no pictures on it. It makes you feel uncomfortable ordering.”

“On the wall, it says that you get all these benefits within a year or 90 days. With healthcare, after a year you’re automatically enrolled, but for the 90 days, if you don’t respond the week where they have an opening, you don’t get it. My manager will post about it, or if you’re lucky, she’ll send a message to the group, but if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on with the board or the company, you don’t know what’s going on. I try to let my coworkers know, but they don’t really know what’s going on.”

4. Employees may lack trust in their employers’ benefits.

When employees perceive a lack of management support for financial health benefits, they may be less likely to use them. Even the complexity of the benefits selection process can breed suspicion. When a benefit seems too hard to understand, employees might assume that their employer doesn’t really care or want them to use it.

Privacy can be another concern. Employees’ most pressing questions are often about their most sensitive topics, involving information they fear could impact how they are treated by their employers. For example, employees facing financial pressures due to a disability or significant caregiving responsibilities at home might worry that they could face discrimination if they disclose their situations to their managers.

Employee Voices

“I find that for people like myself – stressed out African American men – [we] don’t want to hear technicalities all the time. We want to know what to do and what not to do. For example, I got a chipped tooth last year. I called the HR Department…they just said, ‘Oh, don’t you still have all that [new hire] paperwork?’…I’m just making a simple phone call and the first thing you tell me is to go look at the paperwork?”

“Why would I do that [pay for insurance] with my employer when I could do it with the government and get a way cheaper rate? Why use a middleman? What is the real benefit for them in this case?”

“There are certain things about your life that you don’t want your employer to know.”

Listening to Your Employees

In order to understand what barriers may prevent your employees from taking advantage of their financial health benefits, provide your employees with opportunities to share their experiences and perspectives. Here are some useful ways to unearth challenges and opportunities to increase engagement:

  • Conduct focus groups with employees who are underutilizing benefits.
  • Strengthen feedback loops between employees, line managers, HR and benefits teams.
  • Connect with employee resource groups to gain insight on barriers different employee segments might face in accessing and utilizing benefits.
  1. Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman, “Meet the Low-wage Workforce,” Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, November 2019.

Step 2: Apply Behavioral Insights