Board Game Amuses, Teaches Bored Employees

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, November 3, 2008

I remember my first employee benefits meeting. Actually, no I don't. Come to think of it, I don't remember my second, third, or fourth benefits meeting either.

It must gall HR departments everywhere. They work hard to create affordable, effective benefits for employees, and these dedicated professionals are rewarded for their efforts with a stifled yawn and a vacant stare.

Pam Kennedy, a human resources consultant for INTEGRIS Health in Oklahoma City, got the idea for "The Benefits Game" after attending dozens of dry-as-dust employee orientation meetings. She'd watch bright-eyed, new hires on their first day of work—eager to learn the ins and outs of their new job—quickly reduced to glassy-eyed zombies.

"Here are these brand-new people and the No. 1 thing they want to hear about is benefits. What are the plans? How do we enroll? But 10 minutes into the presentation everyone is bored and half asleep," Kennedy said. "We found that many employees didn't understand the verbiage and the terminology. They didn't understand what is a deductible, or the difference between an HMO and a PPO."

Despite spending hours with new employees explaining benefits packages during the three-day orientation, Kennedy said INTEGRIS' HR department could always expect a flood of telephone calls from befuddled employees saying they couldn't determine which health plan was the best fit.

Then, about 18 months ago, while brainstorming with other HR consultants, Kennedy got the idea for "The Benefits Game."

"When I was a little girl, I learned about car insurance by playing 'The Game of Life'. I thought wouldn't it be cool if we could have a board game?" Kennedy said. "I said 'we need a Game of Life or Monopoly for our benefits.'"

Kennedy and her colleagues took the idea to senior management at INTEGRIS, which prides itself on a philosophy of institutional innovation. "They said 'it's a good idea but we're not sure if people can learn this way. We are not saying no. We are saying you have to prove it to us,'" Kennedy recalled. The HR team created a prototype, at a cost of about $2,000, including labor, and brought it back for managers to play. "They were sold. They were amazed at how much you can learn from this," she said.

How Do You Play?
Anywhere from four to nine people can play "The Benefits Game," which is played on a 3x3 vinyl mat, with a colorful, meandering game trail printed on it. Players pick a benefits plan they think they need at the start of the game and then roll the dice. They land on squares representing one of seven components to the benefits plans, such as a medical event, dental event, retirement event, wellness event, or qualifying event.

"It might be 'You've just turned 50 and need a colonoscopy. Show all the plans, what they cover, and what they cost,'" Kennedy said. "The point is to give people real-life examples that they might experience to see how much their plan is going to cost them."

Players are given cash every time they pass a Pay Day square, and they use the money to buy a health plan. With every roll of the dice, every player at the board is asked to explain how their benefits package would apply to the new situation, so that just about every contingency is covered. In some instances, the game refers employees to INTEGRIS' on-line benefits Web site to get the information they need; for example, to see if their physician is in the network.

"They learn that 24/7 they can go to the HR Anytime Web site without having to call customer service. They don't even realize they are getting these skills. It empowers them to know where this stuff is, but it does it in a really fun way," Kennedy said. "It's so funny because the people really get into it and they want all the money and they say who won and we say 'everybody wins with our benefits plans.'"

The game is played for about one hour and followed up by a short Q&A.

Does It Work?
To see if "The Benefits Game" worked, for six weeks INTEGRIS divided its orientation classes into two groups: one group received the traditional, two-hour benefits briefing; the other group played the game. "It wasn't real scientific. We had a basic questionnaire at the end that everybody took," Kennedy said. "In the end, the people who played the game scored in the 90s and up and the people who listened to the lectures were in the 50s and 60s."

INTEGRIS has copyrighted the game, may launch an online version, and is playing the game with long-time employees during the open-enrollment period.

The Moral of the Story
The INTEGRIS model is a great example of institutional innovation at work. By encouraging employees to think on their feet, the health system has created an effective, low-cost method to teach employees about their benefits plans. Kennedy and her colleagues didn't wait for a top-down memo. They saw a problem and they thought of a way to fix it. However, they couldn't have done it without the support of a senior leadership team that was open to suggestions, had faith in their employees, and was willing to roll the dice.

John Commins is the human resources and community and rural hospitals editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at
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