How can employers support the health and wellbeing needs of employees on a lower income?

Need to know:

  • An organisation’s culture can promote healthy lifestyles that do not have to cost staff a lot to maintain.
  • Signposting healthy options and recipe cards in a staff canteen can help employees improve their diet, counteracting productivity slumps due to a lack of nutrients.
  • Health cash plans and virtual GP services can provide cost-effective healthcare support for lower-income staff.

Lower-paid employees across the UK have come under the political spotlight since Theresa May’s appointment as prime minister, with the government reiterating a focus on the ‘just about managing’ population, or JAMs. A report published by the Resolution Foundation in September 2016, Hanging on; the stresses and strains of Britain’s ‘just managing’ families, identified this demographic as six million working age households and 10 million adults on low-to-middle incomes.

Employers have an opportunity to offer initiatives and schemes to support the health and wellbeing of these employees, which has benefits for both the workforce and the business. Dr Umang Patel, director at Babylon Health, says: “We need to try and break healthcare away from being a perk to being a necessity for people.”

Workplace culture and values

Family pressures and home commitments can mean that taking care of health and wellbeing can be pushed down the priority list for employees, but employers are well placed to make this a key focus during their time at work. Chris Bailey, partner at Mercer, says: “The employer has a great role to play in terms of having a set of values that individuals as employees can become aligned to and that will resonate with them. Employers shouldn’t be slow to recognise that opportunity and responsibility to influence the lifestyle decisions that people make.”

Nutrition is one area that employers can support, for example, by providing access to healthy meals and snacks, whether this is via the food supplied in a staff canteen, on-site vending machines, fruit box deliveries or by offering discount vouchers for local eateries where employees can pick up healthy lunches. The nutrients found in fresh produce as opposed to pre-packed ready meals can help to counter productivity slumps.

Organisations could also supply staff with recipe cards to provide inspiration for low-cost, healthy family meals, which could be paired with a retail discount or a bonus loyalty points scheme to help employees make healthy buying choices. In addition, leftover meals and ingredients from a workplace canteen could be given to staff at the end of the working day, not only reducing waste, but also providing a nutritious evening meal for employees and their families at no extra cost, says Bailey.

Physical activity is another factor that can improve health. This could include encouraging staff to use the stairs instead of the lift and to try to incorporate walking into their daily commutes. “It doesn’t take a lot to change the culture of [an organisation] and to say ‘we’re going to have standing meetings, or we don’t need to send internal emails to people who are based in the same office, we expect people to go and speak to them’,” says Bailey.

After-work clubs and social groups provide a further opportunity for employers to promote wellbeing and fitness, however, if these incur any cost employers must ensure that this remains low, says Ryan Hall, senior strategy consultant, health management practice, at Capita Employee Benefits. For example, if an employer sets up a cycling club, and an employee then needs to find the money to buy a bike, this could present a potential barrier for those on a limited budget. 

Access to benefits

Employers can further support employee health and wellbeing with practical benefits, services and products that facilitate access to low-cost but good-quality healthcare. Access to benefits such as health cash plans, health assessments, and in-patient or day patient only private medical insurance (PMI) schemes, can be useful for employees that do not have much disposable income.

Bikes-for-work schemes, discounted gym membership and gym passes for multiple clubs are further ways to encourage staff to get active, while discounts on sports equipment or wearable technology could enable employees to exercise more at home too. Employees may also appreciate access to virtual GP services during work hours.

Access to health services through technology is a growing industry and these can be highlighted to employees to ensure that they are able to benefit from them. Health and wellbeing apps such as Sleepio, to improve sleep patterns, and Headspace, for mental wellbeing, can be accessed through smartphones. Social networks are also tools for maintaining mental health, adds Babylon Health’s Patel. “That concept of being able to connect with friends and support is really important, especially when [employees] are unable to do that using money,” he says.

Covering incidental costs associated with healthcare is often a forgotten option, says Russell Stephens, director of marketing, distribution and member services at CS Healthcare. This could include employer support for costs such as parking charges at hospital car parks, for an employee’s pet to stay in a kennel if the individual has to have a hospital stay or covering additional childcare costs if the employee needs to attend an appointment.

“Having [the] employer support [the employee] to cover some incidental costs that may be incurred might be needed, and certainly have a higher perceived value than insurers might originally expect, just in terms of that goodwill gesture,” he says.

An employee assistance programme (EAP) can be a valuable benefit for supporting staff with a wide range of wellbeing issues, including debt and legal worries. Mike Blake, director at PMI Health Group, says: “Most employers will have one hiding somewhere and it’s just a matter of re-positioning it and promoting it correctly.”

Think long term 

Overall, a proactive, long-term approach is typically better than a one-off intervention or reactive benefits plan, not just to see a return on investment, but also to help employees keep their healthcare costs to a minimum by enjoying a healthier lifestyle. Education aids this, so seminars on subjects such as alcohol or smoking cessation may be beneficial.

Employers have a real power to boost wellbeing for all employees, including those on a limited budget or identified as ‘just about managing’, by promoting a workplace culture that embraces education, good nutrition and physical activity, supported by cost-effective benefits and technology that enable staff to access tools to stay fit and well.

Viewpoint: Salary sacrifice changes risk turning certain health benefits into luxuries

The forthcoming changes to salary sacrifice rules, in particular, the effect on health screening and other medical benefits, reflect a carelessly fragmented attitude towards the nation’s wellbeing and fitness. As the NHS struggles to meet the needs of an ageing, increasingly long-living but unfit population, the Treasury is withdrawing its support for a simple way to relieve at least some of the NHS’s burden.

Salary sacrifice created, in the Treasury’s view, “an uneven playing field between employers and employees who use such arrangements and benefit from the tax advantages, and those that don’t”. Choosing, wrongly in my view, to see inconsistent take-up among employers as evidence of unfairness, it has instituted a change that may instead increase unfairness, particularly for those on lower salaries for whom the unsubsidised cost of arranging insurance is often prohibitive.

While health and wellbeing-related benefits, including things such as medical screening and group income protection, will be provided as standard to higher-paid staff, they will often be offered to other staff to buy via a salary sacrifice arrangement. These are valuable but expensive benefits that, in the case of many lower-paid or just about managing workers, risk becoming luxuries that will have to be done without when the tax incentive is removed. This regressive step is bad for these employees and their families, bad for their employers and, over the longer term, bad for the social welfare of the country.

While it is feasible that some of what the Treasury will save might help meet increased NHS costs, would it not be more sensible to reduce those costs by financially incentivising tax-payers to take greater personal responsibility for their health?

Our years of austerity seem to have taught us little about the social benefits of shared responsibility and only about the short-term fiscal gains of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Kevin Gude is director at law firm Gowling WLG

Case study: Bolton Young Persons Housing Scheme offers benefits to boost employee wellbeing

Bolton Young Persons Housing Scheme (BYPHS), a charity that helps homeless young people, has developed a comprehensive set of low-cost, employer-paid health and wellbeing benefits to ensure that the charity’s 52 employees are physically and mentally fit to cope with potentially harrowing and emotional caseloads.

A holistic therapist visits the charity’s offices twice a year when BYPHS pays for employees to have a 45-minute massage or reflexology treatment each. The organisation saw 75% of staff make use of this benefit in November 2016.

To target physical health, BYPHS introduced a health cash plan, provided by UK Healthcare in January 2017, with the charity providing a basic package for all employees where certain healthcare costs can be reimbursed up to £100. Individuals can then pay to upgrade their package if they wish.

BYPHS will also fund six sessions of private counselling if required, with the employee themselves selecting an independent counsellor. Approximately 30% of staff have used this service since it was introduced.

In addition, BYPHS has offered a voluntary benefits scheme, provided by Perkbox, since 2015, which has seen a 60% take-up rate since it was introduced. It also provides twice-yearly team lunches and away days, as well as free fruit.

BYPHS ensures each benefit it provides costs the business £5 per employee or less, because this ensures the benefit remains non-taxable. Maura Jackson, chief executive officer at BYPHS, says: “We don’t want to do something that costs people money, that’s just defeating the object.

“The idea is to have a variety of tools in [the] toolkit to make sure that people are fit to work, they’re happy at work, that they’re safe, and that they’re healthy. We’ve got a big responsibility, so we’ve got to make sure that staff are absolutely at 100%.”