Design for Engagement

Step 2: Apply Behavioral Insights

Use insights from behavioral science and human-centered design to simplify benefits decisions, motivate employees, and provide support.

Step 2:  Apply Behavioral Insights

Applying Behavioral Insights to Employee Engagement

Our research points to three useful strategies for promoting engagement with behavioral insights and human-centered design: simplify, motivate, and support. Many of the barriers to engagement described in the previous section can be addressed using these strategies, ideally in combination with one another.


Design benefits and enrollment processes to facilitate access and support decision making.

Streamline access by making benefits more direct.

Benefits that require employees to pay upfront for expenses and wait for reimbursement can be out of reach for employees who are living paycheck to paycheck. For example, employees face a “double hit” when using dependent care flexible spending accounts (DCFSAs), because they have to set aside pretax dollars for childcare expenses and then pay out of pocket before getting reimbursed. You can make these accounts more accessible to financially struggling employees by facilitating direct payments to childcare providers or providing DCFSA-linked debit cards.20

Reduce complexity to make benefits decisions less overwhelming.

Consider how you might reduce the number of decisions people have to make or options they have to consider when selecting their benefits. Too many options can lead to choice overload, which in turn can lead to inaction. In the retirement arena, for example, participation in 401(k)s has been shown to be higher in plans with fewer investment options (in this study, the plans did not include auto-enrollment).21 Avoid jargon; show that benefits are for “normal” people, not the experts.

Make use of automation and defaults.

In the retirement arena, auto-enrollment and auto-escalation have resulted in dramatically higher plan participation and savings rates.22 Features like these help to overcome present bias, which can prevent employees from contributing to their 401(k) plans despite a desire to save. These innovations are now being applied to encourage employees to build short-term savings, with promising results. Defaults can also help simplify choices to guide decision making; one common example is presenting a default contribution rate when employees opt into a retirement plan.


Encourage uptake and usage that contributes to financially healthy outcomes.

Show comparisons to others like them.

Low-wage workers, in particular, might think that benefits are not for “people like them,” particularly benefits like 401(k)s where the payoff isn’t until far in the future. Leverage the behavioral principle of social proof by using personas and examples to demonstrate how the benefit is meeting needs and providing value for “employees like them.” Make sure your communications reflect diversity consistently across design, messaging, and activities, including but going beyond representations of class, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability to reflect a diverse range of needs and life stages.

Design choices to drive engagement.

One proven approach is to require active choice during benefits enrollment. In the retirement context, the power of active choice has been demonstrated to dramatically increase plan participation in the absence of auto-enrollment.23 It works by helping employees overcome procrastination by bringing their goals to mind when making a choice – in this case, to save for a secure retirement. Pre-commitments, such as inviting people to make an advance commitment to direct a portion of future pay increases to savings, can also encourage people to follow through on their goals by reducing present bias.

Add or remove friction to support or discourage certain outcomes.

For example, providing information about the risks of borrowing against one’s 401(k) or embedding a referral to a financial coach into the process of requesting a loan might help your employees consider alternatives in times of immediate need. In the retirement arena, simplifying the 401(k) enrollment process has been shown to significantly increase plan participation.24

Embed behavioral principles in your benefits communications.

For example, use anchors to nudge people toward financially healthy behaviors; in one study, simple messages in emails about a company’s 401(k) plan that referred to arbitrarily high or low contribution rates were shown to significantly impact how much people actually saved.25 Planning prompts and reminders, such as strategically timed messages that leverage the fresh start effect can also encourage employees to set and follow through on financial goals. Framing employer benefits such as a 401(k) match as leaving money on the table can take advantage of loss aversion to help shift employees’ focus from the reduction in their take-home pay to the loss of the benefit if they do not participate.

Using Active Choice to Encourage Employees to Save for Emergencies

In a recent study, the Financial Health Network worked with Even, an employer-based financial management platform that includes an automatic savings feature, to test whether using active choice messaging would influence employees’ savings behavior. During app onboarding, users were asked to choose a savings goal or to indicate “I don’t want to save right now.”

We found that active choice messaging increased the number of users who saved via automatic paycheck withdrawals by 31% after eight months. Individuals who saw active choice messaging had 42% greater savings balances after eight months than those who did not receive such messaging. These findings suggest that active choice messaging can be a powerful way to promote financial health goals when automatic enrollment isn’t feasible.


Provide supportive resources to ensure access and enhance trust.

Provide compensated time and resources at work for employees to understand and use benefits.

On-the-job responsibilities can prevent workers from using their benefits more fully. Providing time and resources (such as access to a computer) during work hours to understand benefits can help, especially for employees who may only have access to the internet via a smartphone at home. Using nontraditional channels to communicate with employees in the field, such as text, can also make it easier for them to use their benefits.

Lead with flexibility.

Some employees, particularly low-wage workers, may be hesitant to lock themselves into a decision that reduces take-home pay and therefore limits their flexibility to deal with the unexpected in the future. Remind employees that benefits can be adjusted to accommodate specific major life events, and commit to helping them navigate these complexities when their needs change. Be sure to point out any benefits that can be adjusted at any time, even outside of qualifying life events.

Provide clear and accessible avenues for support.

Don’t leave employees struggling to access benefits information; make it clear where they can go with questions or if they need help. Consider other accessibility needs in addition to disability. For example, make supportive resources available during extended hours for employees with significant caregiving responsibilities. Signal that accessibility concerns and questions are welcomed, expected, prioritized, and will be met with solutions.

Respect privacy.

Employees’ most pressing questions are often about their most sensitive topics, involving information they fear could impact how they are treated by their employers. Create impersonal ways to address personal questions. This could include offering employees the ability to anonymously submit questions ahead of an information session, or presenting the questions and answers of other employees as FAQs.

Normalize use.

When employees perceive a lack of management support for financial health benefits, they may be less likely to use them. Even the complexity of benefits enrollment can breed suspicion, especially for groups that have experienced historic disenfranchisement and discrimination. Clear the air in your benefits communications; acknowledge where things aren’t easy, and show that your goal as an employer is to help employees effectively employ their benefits. This could include regularly reminding employees about unused benefits, or providing information about how to get more out of benefits like HSAs, in concrete dollar terms.

Equip frontline managers.

On-site managers are often the first (and, in some cases, the only) point of contact that frontline workers have with human resources. Training and equipping them to help employees understand and navigate the financial health benefits and programs available to them can go a long way toward promoting effective engagement.

Engage family members in the process.

It may not be your employee who makes key financial decisions in their household, but a spouse or other family member. For this reason, you might consider providing printed materials that employees can bring home with them, in addition to company intranet sites or other on-the-job channels. Providing time for employees to ask questions about benefits outside of work hours can create opportunities for family members to participate directly in benefits decision making.

  1. Sophia Fox-Dichter, Ellen Frank-Miller, and Sloane Wolter, “Making Dependent Care FSAa Work for Low- to Moderate-Income Families 5 Action Steps for Employers,” Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, February 2019.
  2. Sheena Sethi-Iyengar, Gur Huberman, and Wei Jiang, “How Much Choice is Too Much?: Contributions to 401(k) Retirement Plans,” Wharton Pension Research Council Working Papers, January 2003.
  3. Jeffrey W. Clark and Jean A. Young, “Automatic enrollment: The power of the default,” Vanguard Research, February 2018.
  4. Gabriel D. Carroll, et. al., “Optimal Defaults and Active Decisions,” National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2005.
  5. John Beshears, James J. Choi, David Laibson, and Brigitte C. Madrian, “Simplification and Saving,” National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2005.
  6. James J. Choi, Emily Haisley, Jennifer Kurkoski, and Cade Massey, “Small Cues Change Savings Choices,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, October 2017.

Step 3: Leverage Employee Touchpoints