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How to Boost Employees’ Personal Health Literacy

One of the most challenging tasks facing benefits leaders is ensuring their workforce is prepared to make well-informed health care benefits decisions. But to understand their benefits options, let alone make confident choices, employees need to have a workable level of personal health literacy. 

Defined by the CDC as the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others, personal health literacy is something that has to be learned and practiced. And since employers play such an integral role in providing for their people’s health care and related benefits, the workplace is a natural setting to build – and apply – health literacy skills.   

Here are five ways you can help your employees boost their health literacy and become more informed health care consumers: 

1. Commit to Advancing Your Employees’ Personal Health Literacy  

Before any initiative can yield results, it needs to be strategically prioritized. Health literacy matters because it influences the way your employees engage with their health care at nearly every touchpoint. The adages “knowledge is power” and “the more you know” apply perfectly to scenarios in which people are selecting benefits, communicating with health care providers, asking questions about their insurance, reading health plan materials like explanations of benefits, following treatment instructions and so on.  

The health and financial risks associated with making assumptions or misunderstanding the terms or how-tos of health care are high, helping to build the business case for incorporating personal health literacy into a benefits program. Plus, employees are likely to appreciate your efforts to help them navigate benefits and the health care system, ideally resulting in a more satisfactory benefits experience and better health and financial outcomes.  

2. Adhere to the Principles of Health Literacy in Your Benefits Communications 

When sharing health or coverage information in your benefits communications, don’t assume that any employees are comfortable with the terminology you’re using or the guidance you’re providing. In other words, don't take your workforce’s health literacy for granted.  

In their guide for health communicators, Clear & Simple, the National Institutes of Health encourages content creators to consider these common characteristics found within audiences of health information: 

  • Some individuals think in concrete/immediate rather than abstract/futuristic terms. 
  • Some people lean toward literal interpretation of information. 
  • Some people lack basic language fluency to correctly comprehend and apply information from written materials. 
  • Some people may have difficulty processing information like following medical instructions, or reading a prescription label. 

With this in mind, follow the basic suggestions for communicating clearly and simply. These include: 

  • Using plain language – familiar terms, not jargon  
  • Writing in a direct, active voice 
  • Spelling out acronyms, even if they seem to be common knowledge 
  • Incorporating concrete, relatable examples and logical “how-to” information 
  • Breaking up text and emphasizing important copy with headings, bolded font and illustrations 

Also, consider building a step into your writing and publishing processes (such as asking a focus group of employees for content feedback) to ensure your communications are culturally and linguistically appropriate. 

Explore the Health Literacy Solutions Center’s plain language resources, these from or these from the CDC to learn more. 

3. Communicate with Employees About Their Benefits Regularly 

You’ve heard it before: repetition, repetition, repetition. It stands to reason that consistent exposure to information that’s clear and concise can boost learning and drive desired behaviors. So, when your employees are accustomed to receiving health care benefits information that’s digestible, they’re more likely to perceive it as valuable – and the concepts become “sticky.” 

What’s more, reinforcing benefits messaging by sharing it multiple times and over different channels helps to build the reader’s benefits literacy “muscle.” A calendar can help you make sure you’re getting the right messages out at the right time. Employees are repeatedly seeing (and comprehending) health care communications, ultimately helping to increase their confidence in when and how to use their benefits.  

4. Provide Easy-to-Access Digital Health Care Literacy Resources 

Deploying clear and consistent benefits messaging is one thing, but serving as a health care education resource is another. Because employees may not take initiative to build their personal health literacy, you may want to consider introducing a “Health Literacy 101” resource library to employees during onboarding and open enrollment season (and keep it up throughout the year!), which houses collection of external resources they can use to brush up on health plan terms, medical terms or family health care basics.   

It’s also important that the tools employees use at their point of need or engagement – your company intranet, benefits portal, benefits enrollment system, care navigator, etc. – be easy-to-use and easy-to-understand. If your HR team is creating the content and has some control over its digital functionality, you may want to:  

  • Test your copy’s readability before publishing it online. 
  • Embed definitions within text via a cursor or mouse hover. 
  • Link clickable text to outside resources.  

And don’t forget to remind employees that they can reach out to their friendly HR and benefits colleagues for help understanding, choosing and using their benefits. 

5. Work with Your Benefits Partners to Expand Your Health Literacy Efforts 

Your HR team certainly doesn’t need to create all the benefits information you disseminate, so work with your benefits and benefits administration technology partners to see what resources they make available to customers and members. Ask them to provide you with digital education materials you can share with your workforce and see if representatives can present sessions at your next lunch and learn or benefits fair. Allow them to help educate your workforce on the products, solutions and how-tos of their offerings so employees know how to take advantage of them.