Flummoxed by Benefits Options? So Is Your HR Rep

The shifting landscape around retirement and healthcare has human resources professionals struggling like the rest of us. The good news: employers are offering more access to third-party advice.

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If the ever-changing worlds of healthcare benefits and retirement planning make your head spin, you are now officially excused. Even the people who are supposed to know the most about this stuff are crying uncle.

A mind-numbing 73% of human resources professionals say they need to develop greater expertise in these and other areas to do their job effectively, according to the newly released workplace benefits report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch. In other words, the vast majority of HR folks don’t know enough to confidently offer the right benefits advice.

Let’s cut them a little slack. The rollout of Obamacare would have confused Einstein and frustrated Job; and the 401(k) world is shifting by the day as pressure mounts to boost worker savings and participation rates and to help retirees seamlessly convert savings into guaranteed lifetime income. These are not simple matters. Three in five HR pros say healthcare benefits are soaking up more of their time, and two in five say the same thing about their company’s 401(k) plan.

The good news is that this self-awareness plays into a salutary trend: more employers are offering workers more access to professional advice, especially as it relates to retirement issues. They are also driving down plan costs, improving investment choices and boosting the company match, according to a recent report from Aon Hewitt.

A third of HR pros have increased the amount of time they spend educating workers about the role of company benefits in life planning, and 70% of companies now offer some kind of financial education around retirement planning. This is partly self-serving. Most companies acknowledge that financial wellness leads to a more satisfied, loyal, engaged, and productive workforce.

The clearest area of improvement is financial education: 70% of employers now offer workers one-on-one advice from a financial professional, up from 56% a year ago. This may be through a call center or Q&A session after a seminar. But it is customized, and it often leads to a deeper discussion later on.

At least one critical void remains: those within five years of retirement generally do not get as much guidance as they need. This might be because they are older and less adept at the online services that make up so much of employer-sponsored advice. It might also be that with larger nest eggs and little time their needs are more complex.

Either way, 72% of the nation’s largest employers acknowledge that this group of older workers needs more help than they currently are getting at the office. Now, if only their HR departments understood the issues well enough to do something about it.