Is It Up to Business to Solve the Toughest Problems?

Winter 2013

Soundings

Is It Up to Business to Solve the Toughest Problems?

By Jennifer Benz

Jennifer Benz is chief strategist and founder of San Francisco-based Benz Communications, a benefits-communications consultancy. Her last article was “The Benefits of Benefits,” in the Fall 2009 issue.

We’re all too familiar with our nation’s thoroughly debated health and financial problems. They frequent the news, permeate boardroom discussions of healthcare costs, and anchor dinner-table conversations as families worry about their loved ones’ futures—or their own.

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions—one in three American adults is obese—and is now the leading cause of preventable death. Americans’ failure to save adequately for retirement has equally dire consequences, as the coming shortfalls are predicted to widen inequality and social unrest and strain both public and private funding sources.

Absent a major shift in our nation’s culture, resolving these issues seems daunting. And can we really expect a culture shift in a nation fueled by fast-food advertising, overconsumption, and easy credit?

Currently, much of the national debate blames our health and financial struggles on bad choices made by otherwise perfectly capable individuals. Such finger-pointing does little for creating viable solutions—and is simply inaccurate. I was encouraged to see Dr. David L. Katz pointing out in US News & World Report that “we have no scientific evidence—none—that the current generation of adults in the United States has less personal responsibility, self-control, or willpower than every prior generation.”

What we do know is that today’s environment is completely different from that of previous generations. Just a few decades ago, you didn’t have to try to schedule time in your daily routine to exercise—your job required you to move all day long. You didn’t have to seek out healthy natural food—that’s all that was available. You didn’t have to save for your retirement—someone else took care of that. (And you probably weren't going to live too long after you quit working, anyway.)

Today, the equation is completely different, and the much-blamed individual is working against structural, societal, and economic changes that make the goal of living healthy and planning for a secure financial future increasingly difficult.

Now, I would never suggest there isn’t an element of personal responsibility at play here. Of course we all need to take action and do all we can that will help us live the best lives possible. And we also need to acknowledge that knowing what to do, being able to act on it, and having the means to do so is not something we are born with or necessarily even taught—and this information certainly hasn't been programmed into and transmitted to us by our culture.

This means it’s everyone’s responsibility to change. That’s where changing our systems and our structures come into play—and where we can look to employers large and small to have tremendous influence and impact.

Employers have a lot at stake when it comes to the health and financial security of their workforce. Most are spending 20 to 30 percent of compensation on benefits designed to support these issues. All feel the impact of poor health and financial stress on productivity—one of the biggest drains on our businesses and economy. And all have a tremendous opportunity to alter behaviors.

Companies have more power and influence than most people expect. In addition to providing health benefits, they are a trusted source of health and financial information, and they have reach and access to vast numbers of people. They have benefits-plan design levers—from requiring health actions to designing retirement programs that automatically help people save—that can aggressively encourage or force actions. They control the environment in which people spend the majority of their days, from the food available to whether the physical space encourages or discourages movement.

Employers already spend a tremendous amount on a vast array of benefits, including health and retirement benefits. Yet very few make the additional small investment needed to effectively educate employees and their families.

In the spring of 2012, we surveyed almost three hundred HR and benefits professionals to learn how they communicate their health, financial, and other benefits. While an overwhelming majority (78 percent) stated that engaging employees and their family members year round was their top challenge, only about a quarter actually communicate throughout the year. Adoption of modern tools such as websites and social media remains low.

Most startling, only 22 percent of employers document a benefits-communication strategy at all—a crucial step in connecting benefits communication with overall benefits-program and business goals. They are leaving the way their employees perceive and use these costly programs up to chance. Further, the budgets allocated for this communication are by and large insufficient to meet even basic requirements. Two-thirds of respondents, from all sizes of organizations, reported budgets of less than $25,000 a year. That’s about the amount a Fortune 500 company spends on health care for only two or three employees.

At minimum, this illustrates a missed opportunity to maximize the value of a precious company resource (the 20 to 30 percent of compensation spent on benefits). It is also a missed opportunity to educate and motivate individuals—and be part of the culture change our country so desperately needs.

To create that culture change, we need to shift our thinking toward helping, not blaming, individuals. And, we need to look to employers to implement the transformative programs that can put individuals, our companies, and our country on the right track.

Share

The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.