How to talk about pensions and benefits during coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has hit us all hard, and pensions and benefits are no exception.

The pandemic has implications for out-of-country emergency travel insurance, disability benefits and even day-to-day health-care claims, since plan members aren’t able to access many of their usual practitioners and may be looking for virtual alternatives. From a pension standpoint, the recent market downturn has had a huge impact on pension plans and, more broadly, on individuals’ retirement savings.

Read: Webinar: Coronavirus: What do employers need to know?

During difficult times, it’s more important than ever to help people stay informed. Here are some tips for plan sponsors on how to communicate with employees and plan members on pension and benefit matters.

  • Speak up

This is a time when communication is critically important. Just about every organization I’ve interacted with in the last few years — from restaurants and hotel chains to my local public library — has reached out to tell me how they’re handling the coronavirus. If they have my email on file, I’ve heard from them! In this environment, staying silent could be viewed by employees as a glaring omission.

  • Communicate often, but not too often

The flip side of that recommendation is, more isn’t necessarily better. Regular updates are useful — perhaps even expected — but communicating just for the sake of communicating doesn’t add value. In fact, it may add to employees’ stress.

Read: 70% of employees satisfied with employer communications around coronavirus: survey

Many people are facing employment challenges, whether due to layoffs, work stoppages or navigating a new work-from-home environment, so it’s important to avoid overwhelming employees. It’s about striking the right balance between too much communication and too little. And if a plan sponsor isn’t sure about the right frequency, it never hurts to ask.

  • Be mindful of your tone

We’ve all seen some good communications and some not-so-great ones. In early March, food takeout app Ritual sent out an email to promote its services, ending rather flippantly with, “Now, please excuse us while we go wash our hands while humming the first 20 seconds of Lizzo’s ‘Truth Hurts.'” It didn’t go over well. The company quickly sent out another email, apologizing for making light of a serious situation. As a more positive example, check out Galen Weston’s email updates — they’ve got a good handle on the right tone, messaging and level of detail.

  • Be honest and as transparent as possible

In times of uncertainty, there’s a fine balance for employers between reassuring people and promising what they may not be able to deliver. If the pension plan is in rough shape, glossing over that information won’t serve plan sponsors (or their members) well in the future, especially if changes are ultimately required to re-establish funding levels or ensure plan sustainability.

Read: Sounding Board: Governments must ease burden on pension plans in era of coronavirus

That said, try to avoid using words like “panic,” “fear” and “crisis.” There’s no need to add fuel to an already raging fire. And, employers shouldn’t be afraid to admit when they don’t know the answers. With things changing day by day, plan members will understand if their plan sponsor doesn’t have all the answers — just commit to keeping them informed.

  • Give them accurate information

It goes without saying that the information that employers provide needs to be correct. There’s so much information and data floating around out there, especially on social media, that it can be hard to distinguish fact from fiction.

What employees and plan members really need right now is reassurance and access to useful, relevant resources. For example, in the current environment, employers may find more people are dealing with increased stress, anxiety or mental-health issues. If they have an employee assistance program, it can be a helpful resource to support employers, so make sure people know it’s there and how to access it.

This is a challenging time to be a communicator. But it’s also a chance for employers to be the voice of reason and a voice their people can trust.