Why Benefits Utilization Varies...and Why it Matters

The following post comes from Lucy English, Managing Director of Institutional Research at Horizons Workforce Consulting.

As an HR consultant with Horizons Workforce Consulting, I frequently receive questions about benefits usage. If an employer offers a suite of benefits that reduce employee stress, support work/life effectiveness, and even help further career goals, why don't all eligible employees use them? How can HR departments effectively market their support programs to improve benefits utilization and by extension, their employees' well-being and resilience?

Answering the Benefits Utilization Question

Horizons Workforce Consulting recently analyzed patterns in a large organization to help answer the often puzzling topic of benefits utilization. We were able to determine four major segments of employees based on self-reported behaviors. Fascinating patterns emerged based on these four groups:

  • A struggling group that was disengaged at work and overwhelmed at home,
  • A "mixed" group that was doing okay at home, but unhappy and disengaged at work
  • A group who was "doing fine," scoring average on both their work experience and life outside of work
  • A thriving group that was highly engaged at work and managing home life well

Which Employees Use the Most Benefits

We saw clear, statistically significant patterns on key variables including self-reported work productivity and work quality. When graphed, both variables showed clear "stair-step" relationships to employee groups' work/life balance. The struggling group had lowest productivity and work quality and also showed significantly higher overall stress, with each subsequent group reporting lower and lower stress levels and higher work performance respectively. Our key finding, certainly of interest to HR professionals, was that benefits usage followed a clear pattern: struggling employees used the fewest benefits and thriving employees used the most. The fact that this top tier of engaged, productive employees takes advantage of the offered benefits may well be part of their secret for success.

For example, while all employee groups described elder care concerns as one their top five stressors, "thriving" employees were more than three times as likely to have taken advantage of the back-up elder care program available to them. Employees who were "doing fine" were notably concerned with trying to find ways to create work-life effectiveness. All of this data begs the question: could the employee's skill at taking advantage of the resources available to them be the key differentiator between thriving employees and those who are just "doing fine?"

How Do We Improve Benefits Utilization?

While more analysis is needed to determine causality, our research offers evidence that benefits usage is, at minimum, associated with success at work and at home. At most, using an employer's support programs makes a substantial contribution to an employee's work/life success and well-being. As we continue our research, we hope to learn the underlying causes of why benefits utilization differs across these four employee groups. Then, the organizations we serve can better tailor their benefits communications, market their work/life programs, and support their workforce and business health.